New in the cinema – «Billie»: close-ups of an unapproachable culture


Words from companions, colored moving images: the documentary “Billie” sheds light on the life of jazz icon Billie Holiday.

Billie Holiday in the cinema, again? As early as spring, the tragic life of the great jazz and blues singer and the political aspects of her career were the subject of the feature film “The United States vs Billie Holiday”.

Now, almost two years late, the documentary “Billie” by the British James Erskine can also be seen in our cinemas.

Cautiously colored

The most striking thing about Erskine’s film are the carefully colored concert recordings of the singer, who died in 1959. There are only a few color photographs of her life and no colored film recordings.

With the help of the Brazilian artist Marina Amaral, the film team colorized the black and white photos in a refined and cautious manner: the immersion in the timelessness of her vocal art appears completely natural.

Interviews with close companions

The interviews with contemporaries and companions of the singer provide the backbone of the film’s content. The New York journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl conducted this in the 1970s for a planned Billie Holiday biography.

In 1978, Kuehl committed suicide under circumstances that have not yet been clarified. Her tape cassettes and transcripts remained unprocessed in a collector’s archive.

An angry Count Basie

Now, around 50 years later, these recordings are sound-technically cleaned and acoustically processed, giving you goose bumps. For example, when Linda Kuehl asks bandleader Count Basie whether it is true that the relatively light-skinned Billie Holiday had to put on darker make-up for her appearances at his place, he gets quite angry at first.

He asks angrily whether she wants to talk about Billie Holiday or his band. Whereupon the journalist explains that one cannot work without the other.


As the first black woman in a white band, Billie Holiday made a mark in the USA in the 1940s.

Present Film

Thrown out by the producer

Jo Jones, Count Basie’s long-time drummer, was less reluctant: Billie Holiday did not leave the Count Basie band voluntarily, he claims. She was kicked out. And not from the band leader Count Basie, but from the record producer John Hammond.

It didn’t suit him that she not only sang blues pieces with Basie. Hammond wanted to impose an Uncle Tom image on her: “He wanted her to be a colored Mammie” (in German, for example: “He wanted to stage her as a black African nanny.”)


More important than her turbulent personal life or career is the musical legacy that Billie Holiday left the world with.

Present Film

Of course, the journalist confronts John Hammond with the accusation, and he finds it completely absurd. It is clear, however, that Billie Holiday provoked not only with her song “Strange Fruit” about lynching of blacks in the old south, but fundamentally with her success as a singer and the everyday racism that became visible as a result.

Artie Shaw’s drummer recalls that Billie Holiday had to sleep in the tour bus again and again while the white band members went to the hotel.

Monument to jazz diva

James Erskine’s documentary “Billie” takes a triple jump into the present with the concert recordings of Billie Holiday and the tape interview recordings from the 1970s.

This double refraction between the historical recordings and the unfinished research by Linda Lipnack Kuehl layer several perspectives on top of one another. That makes the film a fascinating, transparent document.

Theatrical release: 9.9.2021

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