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Billie – Legende des Jazz / Billie

Director: James Erskine (UK). Year of Release: 2020

We start with a death – but not that of Billie Holiday. Linda Lipnack Kuehl died in 1978. She had spent most of the past decade conducting interviews and assembling notes for a biography of Holiday. For the first time, the voiceover announces, we will see the fruit of her research. I’m not sure that the voiceover is being entirely honest. I’m pretty sure there was at least one book based on Kuehl’s work and it reminds me a lot of a tv programme I once saw.

Nonetheless, none of this should be a problem if we hear something that’s particularly groundbreaking. Otherwise, everyone knows Billie Holiday’s story, right? It’s not that it’s not dramatic – starting with child prostitution, going through several abusive men, singing possibly the greatest anti-racist song ever, and ending in poverty. But is there anything left to say?

There is an inherent problem with the usage of the source material. It would be a bit too boring to just have someone reading out of a book, so there are endless shots of bodiless hands using an old typewriter or a running dictaphone, as we see stills from Billie’s life. It’s all a bit alienating – and not in a Brechtian makes us think about what we’re watching way. It just slows down the story unnecessarily.

When we hear the disembodied voice of Billie’s ex-pimp explaining how she enjoyed being hit, and that most women enjoyed getting a black eye, the impact is blunted by us not being able to see who is uttering these terrible words. And as we listen to stories about Billie degenerating into drug abuse, and suffering racism and sexism, this all has less impact because we are continually distracted by period photographs.

Towards the beginning of the film, we hear Kuehl’s voice on one of her tapes explaining that she didn’t want to portray Billie as a victim. Maybe it’s the film maker’s fault, but we do not see a picture of an empowered woman. As she moves from one damaging relationship to another, we do not see Billie as having any agency or ability to change things.

Worse, there is a degree of victim blaming going on here. We are blandly told pop-psychology wise, that Billie was a masochist who just fell for the wrong sort of man. It’s hard to avoid the implication that it’s not their fault if they hit her once in a while, because that was what she wanted. A psychologist is brought on at one point to declare she was a psychopath. No-one challenges this dehumanising diagnosis.

Most of the questions that we hear Kuehl asking her A-list of interviewees are somewhat salacious – about her drug use, her promiscuity or her bisexuality. None of this is really used to contextualise the music. Apparently Kuehl was a tabloid journalist, which would fit the modus operandi that we see here. It’s not that we don’t learn interesting things about Billie, just that these come more often than not by people not answering Kuehl’s questions.

The film attempts to address racism and sexism, not least a spectacular snippet towards the end of the film, where someone explains how Billie’s life was ruined by a racism which has not gone away while we see clips of Klan marches and other racist parades in the US. The trouble is that this comes immediately after a long segment about how her black second husband abused her and took all her money. Most information that we see is barely related to what comes before or after.

Worst is the film’s attempt to blend Billie’s and Kuehl’s stories – they were both women who died young, see. But although Kuehl’s story is tragic – her clearly distressed sister think she was murdered, even if she have no evidence, only instincts – it belongs to a different film. Shown here, it only slows from and distracts from the main feature.

I think the main trouble is that the film doesn’t really seem interested about the music. We are told a lot about Billie’s many relationships, but little about her songs and why they work. The result was truly frustrating for me, and I’m a little perplexed by the general good press that the film has garnered

So, is the film terrible? Well, no, and this is almost entirely down to the soundtrack. There is enough concert footage of Billie singing to make us remember what all the fuss is about. Every second of music in this film is to be relished. I could have done without most of the rest of it, though.

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