New Black Films have announced the UK theatrical release of an incredible new documentary on the legend Billie Holiday. Directed by Emmy nominated James Erskine and co-produced by the exceptionally talented Shianne Brown, the film also has the support of Michele Smith as executive producer, who is the Vice president of Estate and Legacy brand Management at Concord, and also oversees the estate of Billie Holiday.
The team is incredible – as is the film. Simply titled ‘Billie’ the documentary delves into Billie’s world through three different timeframes, using never before heard tapes of interviews with Mingus, Count Basie, Tony Bennett and those who were close to Billie. These interviews were conducted by journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl and it is her story that also shines through and helps us explore who Billie really was and what she means now. This documentary shows us Billie’s strength, courage and resilience.
The documentary delves deep into Billie’s world exploring social injustice, racism, gender inequality and her artistry through adversity. Recently I caught up with Director James Erskine to discuss the film, his process and of course, Billie herself. The full interview will appear in the next edition of the Jazz In Europe magazine.
Most of James’ career to date has been focusing on Sport related films and documentaries and in the interview I asked James to what brought him to Billie Holiday. He explained “When I’ve approached films, I’ve made about athletes; they were more like Arts films. They’re really about the considerations of those as cultural icons. There is a consistent vein in my work as I’m interested in genius and also where popular culture meets political culture. Music is a massive part of my work. I loved Billie Holiday and started listening properly in the early 2000s. I was immediately struck by her voice and had her on repeat and thought, this woman is extraordinary. It was when I became interested in opera and I think there is some similarity between the way Billie Holiday performs and the thing of her using her voice as an instrument. She’s pulling up the emotion and the meaning of things. The performance element is implicit rather than just representation and I found her voice unique – it reaches you in a way a Bach cello concerto reaches you. With Billie, I actually feel what she is saying, that was the beginning of it.”
There is a lot of information out there in the world about Billie Holiday – books, articles and some documentaries and of course, the infamous ‘Lady Sings The Blues’ film with Diane Ross. But this film gives us a completely new and refreshing angle to her story. The documentary uses hours of taped interviews conducted by journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who spent eight years trying to find the truth of Billie Holiday, talking to Billie’s jail mates, pimps, FBI agents along with Count Basie, Mingus and many others. Sadly, she died, mysteriously, before her book on Billie was finished and these interview tapes have never been heard.
James had heard about Linda Lipnack Kuehl through a few people that had access to a couple of her transcripts. He said “to me, the idea of audio tapes and eyewitness testimonies was really interesting. The producer I work with, after many meetings, said to me is there a perfect music project you want to do? For me, it’s about story first rather just painting a portrait and I said there is this story about this journalist who died on her search for Billie Holiday. It’s uncanny to me that a woman that is going on a search for Billie Holiday, who is abused throughout her life and tragically dies before she finishes the book…so my producer went off and tracked down the tapes through a collector and we negotiated access.”
Having watched this film several times now and spoken to James, I feel I have a deeper understanding of Billie and it is so refreshing to have a focus on her resilience and not just the tragedy. There are so many fascinating areas to explore and discuss here, but really, the best thing to do is go and see the film. You will be transported into Billie’s world through the eyes of people that actually knew her, and you will have renewed admiration for not only her talent and artistry but for her strength and resilience. A simply outstanding must-see documentary.
“When you sing, always tell the truth” – Billie Holiday
The film is on general release in the UK on November 13th.
Last modified: May 3, 2021