Kuehl’s presence. Two things stand out about the accompany- ing visuals. While many appear in black-and- white, others are carefully colorized, giving them a fresh life without detaching them from their time. Overall, the quality of the imag- es is astonishing. Especially striking is the first moving image we have of Holiday, when she sings “Saddest Tale” in the famous 1935 Duke Ellington short Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life . Long available on YouTube in second- and third-generation dubs, here the 19-year-old Holiday jumps off the screen with a level of visual shading and detail never before seen. Erskine wisely lets it play in black-and- white. Similarly pristine is Holiday and Count Basie’s octet froma smartly colorized 1950 short. “The decision to colorize was partly artistic and partly financial,” Erskine noted. “It is ridic- ulously expensive and difficult. ... In choosing to colorize or not, I didn’t want to be bound by the limited technology of the day, which was forcing us into black-and-white. Billie lived in a full-col- or world in the ’30s and ’40s, and [digital color- ist] Marina Amaral’s colorization of the stills is amazing.” Early in the film, Tony Bennett strikes a tone of ineluctable doom, musing, “Why do all girl singers crack up when they hit the top?” Despite the sweeping sexism of his premise, he sounds a familiar note in the literature onHoliday. In pur- suing an answer, Erskine necessarily finds him- self confined to the darker paths that Kuehl fol- lowed in her interviews, which narrate the story. By the ’60s and ’70s, when Kuehl’s search was underway, that darkness had been baked into Holiday’s identity for more than 25 years. “Linda may have discovered Billie as a tragic figure,” Erskine speculated. “But based on her notes andmanuscripts, I don’t think that was the story shewas trying todo. Shewas trying to exca- vate why this woman’s issues led where they did. Shewanted towalk that journeyandremindpeo- ple what was beautiful about Billie and explain how such a beautiful flower could be so crushed.” Kuehl’s quest led to interviews with a fasci- nating, extensive cast of characters: Count Basie, trombonist Melba Liston, guitarist Barney Kessel, record producers John Hammond and Milt Gabler, dancer/singer Marie Bryant, night- club owner Barney Josephson and even Jimmy Fletcher, the narcotics agent who helped engi- neer Holiday’s 1947 arrest for heroin. Kuehl’s persistent efforts to understand her subject broke newground that others, likeClarke and Blackburn, would build on and weave into existing Holiday lore. The irony seemed to come with a price. “I found it uncanny,” Erskine pondered, “that a female biographer of Billie Holiday— her first female biographer—should find herself tragically dead before she tells her story. There’s something about that dangerous world that Billie
inhabited and that Linda entered into that lends itself to this sort of noir ending.” Kuehl’s journey into that dark world provides a dramatic minor- key counterpart that in some ways echoes and amplifies the major storyline. Billie:The Original Soundtrack (Verve) offers a compilation of the most popular music fea- tured in the film, all of which has been previ- ously issued. Versions of “Strange Fruit” and “Fine And Mellow” come from the original Commodore sessions, while other selections originated on Verve andMGM albums.
The soundtrack offers nothing from Holiday’s classic 1935–’41 body of work or the later Decca period that made her popular. Erskine noted that studio sessions were not his focus. “Billie’s preeminence was as a performer,” he said. “I wanted to be able to see Billie perform because there’s not a lot of film or video where we can see her singing to us. Part of the joy of the film is to have an evening with Billie, where she stands in front of you and sings to you.” —JohnMcDonough
MARCH 2021 DOWNBEAT 17
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