The dispassionate sensationalism of True Crime continues to seep into sensitive cultural environments in this new Billie Holiday documentary.
It starts with ominous text introducing the late journalist Linda Kuehl and her hundreds of hours of taped interviews that have never been heard “…until now.” Kuehl disliked the way Holiday was portrayed as a victim, yet this movie based on her work does exactly that. A long he said/he said between bandleader Count Basie and producer John Hammond over who fired Holiday relegates the singer to the position of side character in her own story, a bizarre move for a film called Billie.
More interested in her sex life than her music, the movie imparts little basic information but speculates wildly about intimate details for the sake of sensationalist storytelling. Some of the misogynist accusations levelled at Holiday include “masochist” and “psychopath”, a word I’ve never seen ascribed to Miles Davis who used to beat his wives. The strongest evidence for True Crime’s process of cultural desensitisation is the inclusion of an interview with Holiday’s pimp.
If director James Erskine didn’t feel it was his place to filter Kuehl’s material he should not have made the movie, since that is arguably the role of a documentary filmmaker. If the intention was to expose or provide commentary on the misogyny Holiday faced then he forgot to provide the commentary. He preserves all manner of unchecked, conflicting accounts, with no real aim other than to suggest a vague conspiracy over Kuehl’s tragic death; another strange priority for a film called Billie.
Where Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan told the story of a jazz legend for the purpose of healing old wounds, this seems intent on opening them up; a noble pursuit for documentaries that have coherent viewpoints and compelling evidence, but Billie trades in reductive speculation, baseless accusations and so much voyeuristic gossip it could be a Hear’Say documentary. Where’s the celebration of the artist? If I want to watch a grim film not about Billie Holiday I’ll watch Judy.
The presentation is also confusing thanks to lazy archive imagery and unclearly marked contributors, with portentous interludes complete with typewriter sound effects and foreboding music that isn’t jazz. Naturally the finest moments are hearing Holiday in her own words and seeing her perform, but some of these performances are pointlessly colourised. Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit is not enhanced by virtue of being in colour, if anything it just robs it of historical context.
Billie is a clumsy, self-contradictory doc that does a disservice to both Holiday and Kuehl and fails in the most basic way a documentary can, in that you don’t learn anything. Well, not quite; I learnt that I loved every jazz documentary… until now.