listen to billie holiday sing…



There are many circles of life that we enter, some broken, some unbroken, and some crossover. In Billie the circles of lives involve two women: Billie Holiday and a journalist named, Linda Lipnack Kuehl. The latter person is only part of this documentary, but she is the Roman à clef to unlock the façade of what we know about Billie Holiday i.e., Eleanor Fagan.


“I don’t think I’m singing. I feel like I’m playing a horn. I try to improvise like Les Young, like Louis Armstrong or someone else I admire. What comes out is what I feel. I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That’s all I know.”—Billie Holiday

Born Eleanor Fagan in April 7th, 1945 Billie Holiday would soon become a legend as an American Jazz and Swing music singer. The new documentary titled “Billie” is about her life and social timeline, and the impact “Lady Day” as coined by her close friend Lester Young, made on society—then and now.

Billie is now playing at the Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale and Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood which is where I viewed it. Before I begin my review about this powerful and poignant film, I want to briefly state a more important issue about the two aforementioned independent theatres: Safety protocols are in place for you and your family and friends during this period of the pandemic to attend. In the last week, I have seen Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man at Savor and yesterday, Billie—both theatres have taken every measure to make you feel comfortable. Please remember, these theatres are local businesses that have addressed the needs and wants for patrons to enjoy the wonderful world of cinema. “The Broward County Film Society presents the annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival and runs [these] two arthouse theaters playing the best in independent, foreign, and local films year-round.” The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival has provided our community, and visitors alike, with many choices to see a variety of films: Drive-In Cinema to their FLIFF’s Movies-On-Demand.

Billie Holiday was a poet, prostitute, pot-smoker, but never a porter to the calling of a cosmopolitan singer—she was raw, real, vulnerable, and told her story by singing. This insight into her life in this film is largely attributed to the tape recordings by an English teacher and journalist named, Linda Lipnack Kuehl. She listened to The Essential Billie Holiday, became a fan, and in the 1970’s interviewed many people for a biography who knew her including Billie’s pimp, Count Basie, and Charles Mingus. We learn that Kuehl was a feminist who set out to remove Holiday as a jazz singing junkie to a woman who was a storyteller. The songs “have to be about me” Billie said.  Those songs and stories included “Strange Fruit”—a protest song in 1939 about the lynching of African-Americans. Let me place that date -1939- in your mindset to understand the fearlessness of Billie Holiday. Billie’s fearlessness by singing this song in front of white audiences sometimes created a riot outside of the venue where she performed; Billie’s song also received the attention of the Commissioner for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the bureau began to find ways to bust this bard). In the film, we are reminded that the “Strange Fruit” is still relevant today with the discrimination that people of color, in particular African Americans, deal with in our United States.

Listen… Listen… Listen to Billie sing, to her social timeline as told by those tape recordings that contribute to one part of this film. Kuehl’s work to produce a biography about Billie with these interviews weaves the fine footage by the film’s director and producer, James Erskine. Kuehl died in 1978 from what was deemed a ‘suicide.’ Her sister, the only camera interview in the film, disagrees and believes she was murdered. Although Kuehl’s sister states that she has no evidence of foul play, Linda told her about threats during the research for the biography. The crossover circles between Kuehl and Holiday are introduced several times in Billie.

This well-crafted documentary is featured with one-on-one interviews that give us an opportunity to sense the relaxed dialogue—the honest talk without a camera. You will be engaged with the consistory of friends and musicians from Eleanor Fagan’s life—Billie Holiday’s life—A jazz singer’s life.

Billie was directed and produced by James Erskine. He also directed and produced: Sachin – A Billion Dreams (2017) and Shooting for Socrates (2014). James Erskine’s laurels include: CINDY Awards: 2014 Winner {Gold Award Domestic National Broadcast Documentary} American Masters (1985) for Billie Jean King; IndieLisboa International Independent Film Festival 2020 {Nominee Indiemusic Schweppes Award} Billie (2019).

Cinema Paradiso Hollywood: Intimate 82-seat venue in the heart of downtown Hollywood’s Arts & Entertainment district, within walking distance of 87 restaurants representing more than 40 countries.

2008 Hollywood Blvd

Hollywood, Florida 33020

Savor Cinema Fort Lauderdale: Unique, 200+ seat theatre in a converted church with plush velvet seats, located just across the New River from downtown Fort Lauderdale and minutes from trendy Las Olas Boulevard.

503 SE 6th Street

Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33301

Chris Joseph Stancato is a paperback writer and poet, The Vinyl Record Collection of Stories, Volume I is his first novella (self-published by Amazon in June 2020).

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