Two films decipher, with varying fortunes, the singer’s “scandalous” life: too dark, too liberated and too committed for her time.
“Why do so many jazz musicians die prematurely? A music critic once asked Billie Holiday. After a little time for reflection, the singer confides: “I do not know what to answer you, we are trying to live 100 days in one. The incandescent star consumed herself prematurely, and died in a New York hospital bed at just 44 years old, on July 17, 1959.
She leaves behind a sulphurous story and mythical songs, including Strange Fruit, denouncing the oppression of blacks in an America still divided by racism; the “strange fruit” being none other than the body of a lynched black man, hanging from a tree … In 1939, Time Magazine believes that this title was just a piece of propaganda. While in 1999, the same weekly called it “the best song of the century”. Proof that the look on the singer and her repertoire has changed considerably. In his work Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (also published in 1999), Angela Davis also initiated this change of perception: the “simple singer of variety”, the slightly cracked nymphomaniac junkie, resuscitated as an activist, bearer of protest texts marking the history of the struggle for civil rights .
A film and a documentary
Two films, which will be released at the start of 2021, also attempt to paint the portrait of this extraordinary artist. The biopic Billie Holiday, a matter of state (whose release is scheduled for June 2), presents her as an icon leading a fierce fight for justice, persecuted by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. As for the documentary Billie (released on DVD on May 4 at L’atelierImages), it is based on the work of American journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl who between 1971 and 1978 undertook to write a biography of the singer.
If you want to try to approach the “real” Billie Holiday, it is better to watch the documentary
In other words, if we want to try to approach the “real” Billie Holiday, it is better to watch the documentary. British director James Erskine takes up some of the testimonies collected by Linda Lipnack. A mine: more than two hundred hours of interviews with Charles Mingus, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan… but also pimps or cellmates who were for a time close to her. A short film shot in Super 8mm and carefully colored images bring the atmosphere of the time back to life. But it is above all the voices of the people interviewed, recorded on tape recorder, that bring Billie’s world back to life.
In comparison, Billie Holiday, a matter of state hardly to convince despite the luxury of the means deployed by the African American director Lee Daniels. While the singer’s extraordinary life might have dispensed with elements of fiction, it centers on a supposed romance with FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes). Certain characters, like that of the radio journalist Reginal Lord Devine, a tenuous red thread of the narrative, with racist remarks, did not exist. John Levy, manager and lover of Billie Holiday, is played here by a black actor, Tone Bell, while the real John Levy was white, which is important if we want to denounce the relationship between blacks and whites in the America of the time… The very disjointed biopic is nevertheless valid for the remarkable performance of actress and singer Andra Day (who won a Golden Globe and narrowly missed the Oscar) playing a disturbing Billie Holiday.
Despite their differences, these two films nevertheless have one thing in common, that of showing how much the singer had to fight in a world dominated by men, and marked by racism. From the age of 13, when she joined her mother housekeeper in New York, Billie, like her, became a prostitute. In the documentary, the musician Memry Midgett, confidante of the artist on the end of her life, recounts: “Billie was hustling at 13 and at that age, she had herself put girls on the sidewalk… She wondered if God could never forgive him. »Facts difficult to understand without plunging back into the Harlem of the late 1920s, very violent, in which the teenager evolves. When Linda Lipnack questions Skinny Davenport, one of the pimps who exploited Billie Holiday at the time, the pimp admits, “I hit my girls, I kicked their ass. (…) They loved it. They were proud to have a black eye. “
Prostitution and violence
Later, Billie Holiday will continue to frequent the world of prostitution. “She used to go out with girls,” says John Simmons, who was her double bass player and her lover. She could go see a prostitute right after, she was a sex animal. And, as the documentary demonstrates, his relationships with men will always be marked by brutality. John Levy, in particular, punched her in the face, in the stomach… and she could respond by knocking her out with a bottle of Coca-Cola. Another of her many protectors, Louis McKay, beat her up into the street, kidnapped her, ruled her life, prevented her from having enough to eat to make her lose weight. Which did not prevent her from marrying him. “She always had a good reason to choose the men she slept with,” says John Hammond, who was her artistic director. They played music for her, they protected her and in the male world of nightclubs, they let her do the one thing that mattered, sing. “
Billie Holiday was addicted … to music, to men, to women, to drugs
Billie Holiday was addicted… to music, to men, to women, to drugs. His musicians tell how much the artist liked to “get high”. The doormen on 52nd Street in New York would supply her with marijuana, before she began to use high doses of whiskey, heroin, cocaine… sometimes all at the same time. Soon targeted by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, she invented a scheme, and had drugs reported in the collar of her dog that a friend regularly walked for her.
Was she an obsession with the federal government, as the biopic suggests, and could it be this persecution that precipitated its downfall? It remains difficult to know. The documentary offers interesting avenues for understanding the federal government’s relentlessness in narcotics. Tackling Billie Holiday’s addictions (like those of other jazz stars) afforded good publicity at low cost. The singer’s freedom of tone and manners were undoubtedly difficult to accept in a Puritan America, plagued by racism. Her friend Mae Weiss says that during the singer’s tours in the 1930s, waitresses sometimes refused to serve her in restaurants. “At the end of her meals, she would always ask for an extra burger, and put it in her purse, because she didn’t know if we would agree to feed her later, elsewhere. At the beginning of his tours, he was asked to blacken his face so as not to clash among his musicians.
After watching these two films, we wonder what is more incredible: the extraordinary life of Billie Holiday or the suffocating context of the time? What if the star’s addictions weren’t ultimately a logical response to the overwhelming context she had to endure.
Was the star the victim of a campaign of persecution orchestrated by the American state? The biopic affirms it without qualification. The federal government, outraged by the popularity of Strange Fruit, wanted to silence the artist. Harry J. Anslinger, a very powerful director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, allegedly relied on the star’s drug and alcohol problems to prosecute her. The documentary is more measured. The real Jimmy Fletcher explains that it would be one of Billie Holiday’s agents, Joe Glaser, who would have helped to arrest the icon, to force her to detoxify herself in prison and “save” her.