New Documentary 'Billie' Explores Mysteries Of Billie Holiday And Her Biographer

Dec 4, 2020
Originally published on December 4, 2020 5:22 am

Billie Holiday's life and artistry have been analyzed, scrutinized, interpreted and embellished more than any other jazz singer in history. But the first biographer to fully immerse herself in the world of Lady Day was a New York journalist and avid Holiday fan named Linda Lipnack Kuehl. For some eight years in the 1970s, Kuehl interviewed everyone she could find who had a personal association with Holiday — musicians, managers, childhood friends, lovers and FBI agents among them. Then, before she could finish her biography, Kuehl died: In 1978, her body was found on a Washington, D.C. street. Her death was ruled a suicide.

Kuehl left behind a trove of notes, transcripts and some 200 hours of interviews on cassette tapes — mostly in shoeboxes, some labeled, some not. That archive is where director James Erskine first began pulling together the story Kuehl was never able to finish. His new documentary, Billie (out Dec. 4 on VOD and in select theaters), is about both Holiday — as told through the voices of people who knew her — and Kuehl's obsession with crafting her biography.

"I'd like to write something that is real," we hear Kuehl tell one of her interviewees in the film, "that is really Lady Day, and people who don't see her in any sentimental way, you know? Really, as she is."

Erskine describes Kuehl as "a brilliant interviewer" who tracked down everybody from various stages of Holiday's life. "What was extraordinary was it felt like an archaeological journey," he says, "because it felt like we were excavating voices lost to the past." Those now-deceased jazz voices include Count Basie, Charles Mingus, John Hammond, Jo Jones and Sylvia Syms.

Before her death in 1978, Linda Lipnack Kuehl spent eight years trying to write the definitive biography of Billie Holiday.
Courtesy of Kuehl's sister Myra Luftman

"She excited me with just three notes," drummer Roy Harte tells Kuehl. "She looked like a panther. It's the only way I can describe it. With the most unbelievable face in the world," marvels Syms, singer and Holiday's friend.

To give the documentary a cohesive structure — and to make sense out of the 200 hours of interview material — Erskine says, "We had a discipline that people speaking in the film should only be speaking about an event that they actually witnessed ... because otherwise the material was just sort of overwhelming."

One of most provocative moments in the documentary is Kuehl speaking with Jones, a jazz drummer who toured the country with Holiday when they were both in Basie's band. Jones questions whether Kuehl, a white woman, is capable of understanding the racism they faced.

"Miss Billie Holiday didn't have the privilege of using a toilet. The boys at least could go out in the woods," Jones tells Kuehl. "You don't know anything about it because you never had to subjugate yourself to it. Never."

For Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, Kuehl's interview with Jones is "extraordinary."

"I found his passion, his truth-telling, all of his wisdom ... his honesty, his courage — I found him so compelling," Griffin says. "And I was very happy that the filmmakers gave him as much space as they did."

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The film reaffirms some oft-told legends about Billie Holiday: She could curse up a storm; had affairs with men and women (according to some, Tallulah Bankhead among them); liked to get high from cannabis, heroin and cocaine; and often surrounded herself with men who treated her horribly.

We're also reminded that when Holiday sang "Strange Fruit," she was "fighting inequality before Martin Luther King, Jr," as Mingus puts it. (Holiday sang the haunting indictment of lynching to white and Black audiences as early as 1939.) Mingus tells Kuehl, "That might be why the cops were against her. Not just junk" — alluding to Holiday's arrest, in 1947, for narcotics possession, another event in Holiday's life that Kuehl probed.

In her interview with Jimmy Fletcher, the narcotics agent assigned to conduct surveillance of Holiday, Kuehl asks him whether a big star like Holiday "would have been a target because it would have been a lot of publicity for an agent." Fletcher concedes, "Well, not just for an agent. For the Bureau of Narcotics."

For Erskine, Kuehl's tireless efforts to uncover the truth about Holiday lead to all kinds of revelations. "You certainly get the sense that the more interviews Linda did, the closer she did get to this sort of underground, seedy world," he says. In the documentary, Kuehl's sister says the family does not believe she died by suicide. Erskine isn't sure. "You do start to wonder," he says, "if she was maybe doing a lot more than just uncovering Billie's life, but also the political forces that wanted to silence her."

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When Linda Lipnack Kuehl was 14, she heard this voice.


BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) When the moon's kinda dreamy, starry-eyed and dreamy...

INSKEEP: Years later, Kuehl signed a contract to write a biography of Billie Holiday. The author spent nearly a decade on that project. She died before she could finish but left behind interviews with people who knew Holiday. Now we can hear those interviews and see restored footage of Holiday performing in a new documentary. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The documentary is like a story within a story. There's Billie Holiday, and there's Linda Lipnack Kuehl's obsession with telling her story. Holiday had died by the time Kuehl started working on her biography. Kuehl's goal was to tell Holiday's story through the voices of the people who knew her - childhood friends, musicians, managers, FBI agents. James Erskine, who directed the documentary, says listening to Kuehl's interviews was like an archaeological journey.

JAMES ERSKINE: What was extraordinary was it felt like we were excavating voices lost to the past to create not just a portrait of Billie, but a portrait of the world. It was so full of atmosphere.

BLAIR: Billie Holiday's cousin talked to Kuehl about growing up poor in Baltimore.


JOHN FAGAN: People played on her.

LINDA LIPNACK KUEHL: Did they play on her when she was a kid?

FAGAN: Of course.


FAGAN: The menfolks.

BLAIR: Kuehl interviewed dozens of musicians, including Count Basie.


COUNT BASIE: Well, you interviewing me about my band or Billie Holiday?

KUEHL: Both. I can't write about Billie Holiday with your band if I'm not going to talk about your band.


HOLIDAY: (Singing) Hey there, baby. Make up your mind 'cause I've been waiting such a long, long time.

BLAIR: One of the most arresting moments in the documentary is Kuehl's interview with drummer Jo Jones, who got to know Holiday when they toured together. Jones told Kuehl that as a white woman, she couldn't begin to understand the racism they faced.


JO JONES: You don't know what we was going through.

KUEHL: What were you going through?

JONES: We was going through hell. Ms. Billie Holiday didn't have the privilege of using a toilet at a filling station. You don't know anything about it because you never had to subjugate yourself to it - never.

BLAIR: Bassist Charles Mingus talked to Kuehl about Holiday's activism.


CHARLES MINGUS: Now, she was fighting equality before Martin Luther King.


MINGUS: Well, look at the songs she chose to sing.

BLAIR: As early as 1939, Billie Holiday sang "Strange Fruit," a haunting indictment of lynching, to Black and white audiences.


HOLIDAY: (Singing) Southern trees bear strange fruit.

BLAIR: Billie Holiday's voice, wrote Linda Kuehl, was more real and true than anything I'd ever heard before.


HOLIDAY: (Singing) And blood at the root...

BLAIR: When Kuehl died in 1978, her family recovered the notes, transcripts and 200 hours' worth of interview recordings from her New York apartment. Eventually, they sold the materials to a private collector. Before this documentary, only two biographers were given access to the collection. For the new film, James Erskine interviewed Kuehl's sister, who says Kuehl struggled to finish her book.


MYRA LUTTMAN: At one point, I remember we had a discussion when I said, you know, maybe it's just time to finish it and to leave it imperfect. But she couldn't. It was so much part of her.

BLAIR: In the new documentary, "Billie," the range and depth of Kuehl's interviews are finally available for the public to see in theaters and on demand December 4.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.


HOLIDAY: (Singing) What's new? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.