Here’s how this week’s arts and culture column begins:
Jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915-1959) continues to fascinate. Her life and work—the way she moved through the world—embodied myriad contradictions
The outlines of her story are well-known: born in Philadelphia to an absent father, shuttled off first to relatives Baltimore, then to Harlem and a mother who ran a “good-time” house. The victim of attempted rape at 11, turning tricks by 14. The fame, the adulation, the boozing, the men, the heroin addiction, the arrests, prison time, and FBI profile. The death in a hospital from cirrhosis, chained to a bed.
A new documentary, Billie, directed by James Erskine, is based on the voluminous notes, transcripts and recorded interviews left behind by journalist and fan Linda Kuehl. After spending upwards of eight years in the 1970s talking to Holiday’s childhood friends, fellow musicians, business managers, and lovers, Kuehl died in 1978, an apparent suicide.
The best part of the film, to my mind, consists in Holiday’s performances: The regal bearing, even when singing of the men who abuse her. The heart-stopping phrasing, the slightly tilted head, the between-the-beat silences, the eyes that challenge and plead, mourn and defy, all at once. Her incredible sense of self, a kind of contained built-on-solid rock integrity that no outside force—no man, no Jim Crow law, no trauma even—could touch or defile.
READ THE WHOLE PIECE HERE.