‘Billie’ Review: A Legend, in a Different Light

“Billie” has one of the most unusual and (at least in its initial presentation) disturbing hooks for a documentary in some time. It begins by talking not of Billie Holiday but of Linda Lipnack Kuehl, an arts journalist who in 1971 embarked on a biography of the singer Holiday. That work was never completed; Kuehl died in 1978, in what officials deemed a suicide.

Kuehl amassed a formidable research archive, including tape recordings of interviews with Holiday’s collaborators, friends and lovers. (These categories frequently overlapped.) Some of her work was used in subsequent published biographies, but this movie’s director, James Erskine, acquired the rights to her entire collection, and “Billie” is the first project he derived from it.

Holiday’s short life — she died in 1959 at the age of 44 from complications related to substance abuse — was packed with incident, much of it upsetting. She was on the receiving end of awful racism (as a Black female singer for a couple of white bandleaders in the 1930s, she couldn’t stay in Jim Crow-era hotels or even use their washrooms) and fell prey to multiple addictions. But she also lived her high life with a level of proud ostentation.

At times, Erskine tries to put the narrative of Holiday’s life on a parallel track with Kuehl’s. His efforts in this respect are clumsy. His handling of Keuhl’s interviews is better; what’s said on the tapes often has an uncomfortable kick. Some of her white collaborators speak of Holiday condescendingly. And the legendary drummer Jo Jones seethes with an anger at Holiday’s exploiters you can still feel decades after the fact. If “Billie” gives short shrift to its subject’s artistry while underscoring her life’s squalor, it still offers pockets of valuable insight.

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. In theaters and on Google Play, Vudu and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.

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