When director James Erskine set out to make an all-encompassing documentary about the life and career of Billie Holiday, little did he know what he would find on the 50-year-old cassette tapes collected by Linda Lipnack.
Lipnack’s hours upon hours of interviews with those who knew Holiday was intended to be used for what she hoped would be the definitive biography of the great singer. During her quest, Lipnack lost her life under mysterious circumstances. Now, with the broad assistance of the Billie Holiday estate, Erskine has not only created in Billie a fascinating documentary about the greatest singer of the jazz era, but in a sense, he has completed Lipnack’s journey, nearly half a century later.
In our chat, Erskine and Billie Holiday Estate Manager Michele Smith share the details of creating this extraordinary documentary that turns out to be a tribute not only to Billie Holiday, but to the woman whose dogged pursuit to capture every possible detail of Holiday’s life lends this film its unique source material.
Awards Daily: James, how did you come to this project?
James Erskine: One of the producers, Barry Clark-Ewers, came to me in 2016 or 2017 and asked me if there was a story about a musician that I always wanted to make? I told him I’ve always loved Billie Holiday, I think she’s an incredible story. More than that, I had heard this story about the journalist, Linda Lipnack, who died in the ’70s while on a quest to tell Billie’s story, and she had tap recorded all of these interviews (with people who knew Billie) and no one had ever heard them. I thought if we could get the tapes, we’d really have something. He went off for a couple of months and came back having located the tapes and we negotiated a deal with the collector. From there, the big question was whether there would be anything on the tapes? These tapes were 50 years old, they were recorded on cassettes, and they were stored in someone’s house, or lock-up. We flew to New York and rented a studio to preserve the audio properly, and put the tapes on. The first tape we heard was Charles Mingus, and it was amazing. It was like being transported back in time – the way he spoke, the world that he described. We thought it was incredible, not only for the story we were going to tell, but for the voices we were going to hear that one seldom hears from Billie’s world.
AD: Michele, as someone who is the caretaker of Billie’s legacy, how did you feel about this material once you heard it?
Michele Smith: To hear and listen to people who walked and talked and interacted with Billie Holiday 60 years after her death, and then what James did to bring Billie in (from other sources), and to hear Billie’s voice and who she actually is as opposed to how people portrayed her, was just so fascinating to me.
AD: A lot of biopics or documentaries about famous people have a hard time getting off the ground because the keepers of the estate don’t want the person to be portrayed in an unvarnished fashion – I’m thinking in particular of the Jimi Hendrix estate that won’t release his music if certain essential aspects of his life are part of the intended movie. Did you ever feel any reticence? There’s a lot of things that happen to Billie and things that she does herself that are hard to hear about in this film.
MS: Yes and no. You cannot sugarcoat how her life really was. You cannot change her story. The film speaks to the truth of who she is – the good, the bad, the ugly. But it also shows a side to her that a lot of people have never contemplated – the time and era in which she lived, what she was up against, and her childhood. This film explores all of that. I’m still very protective of her, but I do not deny who she was or is. What I think the film really highlights is that she was a survivor and an activist. Some of her decisions were not the wisest, but she shows us who she is in both her beauty and her flaws. She is shown as a person, as a friend, and a woman who – like everyone – wanted to love and be loved. You hear it in her songs – the emotion. I think the film does a beautiful job of capturing her.
JE: It’s rare to work with an estate that is willing to allow you to portray a person in an unflinching manner – it was a great collaboration. There was never a point in this film where Michele told us you shouldn’t say this or that. We worked very closely trying to represent a very complex person and keep the film alive with all of the uncertainties and contradictions, which to me, is a more real truth than if you try to nail things down precisely. We all live in a world where there are multiple impressions of us. I think that collage created a more coherent picture than hard-nosed journalistic facts.
AD: A lot of the difficulties Billie dealt with in life could be directly attributed to the relationships she had with men and how men treated her, up until the last day of her life. Even with the way the government was hounding her – our government was made up of nothing but men at the time. She had these dual pressures of racism and of being a woman. Was that a theme you attached yourself to early on?
MS: I think a lot of people don’t realize how she was hounded by the FBI for 20 years. As I said, she didn’t always make the best decisions in her relationships and in life, but her life was shaped by the men in it.- she was raped at 10. Her life was not easy. Some of the things that happen in our childhood do follow us into adulthood. Her life is an example of that. You can’t shy away from her story, but I think what the film does is tell it in a manner of truth, so that people see her not only through the lens of the men in her life, but they also see it through the era in which she lived. She grew up in the ’20s and ’30s, she died in the ’50s, and as a black woman in America, she had to deal with a lot of things that other people did not have to.
JE: It was really important in the film to understand Billie as a woman and to take it a feminist perspective. Billie was a woman who lived at a time when women were suppressed, and even more so for her, because she was a black woman. She’s also suppressed to a degree within her own community because she was poor and barely educated black woman. She was abused from a very young age and had to live on her wits. Most great singers from that time came through the church, Billie came through brothels. Billie understood the transactional value of singing and how to use the talents that she had to survive with all the constantly shifting pressures placed on her by the men around her. There was no greater force for her to call upon.
AD: When you hear her sing in the movie, you really have no trouble figuring out where the ache in her voice came from.
MS: When you see her performances, you can see the pain and the anguish – it shows in her eyes.
JE: When we set out with the tapes at the very beginning, I knew that I wanted to set up an opportunity for Billie to tell her story – she does that through the songs she chooses to sing. More so, I knew it needed to be filmed performances. It’s a movie, I did want Billie to be the star of her own movie. There’s something incredible, and raw, and different about seeing Billie sing on film. She was always said to be the greatest live performer and these performances were as close as we could get to showing you that – it’s not toned down the way some of the recordings are. There isn’t a producer intervening and placing arrangements around her, these performances (in the film) are largely her and a piano. They bring that authenticity of expression to it. You know that she’s singing about pain, and self-loathing, and spousal abuse – she’s feeling it. When she’s singing “Now or Never” at the beginning of the movie, it’s not about sweethearts and flowers, she’s singing about sex. She’s giving it all to you, so take it, because she’s amazing! (Laughs).
AD: You talk about making sure Billie is the star of her own movie, but Billie – the film, has to run partially on two tracks because the story of Linda, who performed and recorded all of these interviews because her story is so fascinating too. Was it challenging finding the right balance there?
JE: The challenge of making these archive-based films is to piece the life together in impressionistic ways. It’s doubly challenging when you are dealing with old audiocassettes – it requires a certain amount of excavation. We didn’t know when we got the tapes how much we would uncover Linda’s story or how big of a presence she would be. By listening to the tapes, it became essential to us to have some knowledge of who Linda was – she’s the one asking the questions on the tape, right? It mattered immensely who was asking the questions as well as who was giving the answers. If you watch someone on the news, it’s the interviewer that’s controlling the situation, and Linda was a great interviewer. She’s alive on the tapes, she has dimension, and perspective. In essence, we felt there was a way to tell the story that kept Linda out of it, but she died on this quest, and she also informed the sense of a woman stepping into a man’s world.
It was tricky to get the balance right, but I hope we got it just right. Linda’s story is a tragedy and a loss too – she’s an actor in her own play. Billie’s loss is a tragedy for the whole country. So, while it was hard to get it right, I feel happy with where the film sits that it gives you enough information about the person asking the questions on the tapes. We wanted to complete Linda’s journey, which was to try to create as truthful a portrait of Billie as possible from the people that knew her, and most importantly, from the people who loved her. What you hear in those interviews is people really loved Billie, and not just because she was a great jazz performer, but loved her for the woman that she was. Like (her piano player) Joe Jones, who loved Billie and was a great friend. People like (singer and dancer ) Marie Bryant, and her friends from her youth – they knew her in the ways that only your friends can know you.
MS: You could hear on the tapes how, as friends, they were still protective of her even when speaking their truth.
AD: I think the film ends up being a tribute to both women, really. I thought one of the things that tied the women together in particular was the strong and somewhat peculiar relationship they both had with Count Basie.
JE: They both had a friendship with Count Basie. Billie’s relationship with Basie was a friendship, a professional relationship, that was pretty complex. In the film, (Record producer) John Hammond gives you the essence of how complex and not straight Billie and Basie’s world was. I think Linda, as a biographer, made friends with a number of her subjects. I don’t know why she had a closer relationship with Count Basie, she just did. It was evident from the 15 hours of taped interviews she did with him. They spent a lot of time together. Maybe it was a father-daughter thing – Count Basie was pretty old then, but they certainly sparked off each other.
AD: When I watched the film a second time to prep for our chat, I was struck by how much she was a Jackie Robinson-like character before Jackie Robinson. Jackie integrated baseball, but before that, Billie’s voice – at least to a degree – integrated the airwaves and the night clubs. White people wanted to see and hear her too.
MS: To be very clear, she was at the forefront of her own Civil Rights movement before what people consider to be the time of the Civil Rights movement. When she sang “Strange Fruit” in 1939, she had to weigh the consequences. She knew their would be consequences. I don’t think she knew the consequences would carry her to her death in 1959, but she had to make the conscious choice as a black woman, in America, in 1939, to stand up and sing a song about lynching to a mixed audience knowing that there was no turning back. She was a fighter. I appreciate the parallel you paint with Jackie Robinson, and being the first. I don’t think she gets the credit or the true understanding of what she sacrificed to speak about the atrocities that were happening to black people in the United States. For that, I appreciate this film, and James,’ delving into who she was and what she had to do for her own conscience. She could have sat down and not said anything, but she dared to, she was a fighter.
JE: There was a process when we were making the film, and how I felt about it at that time. When I watched the film eight months later, which was after George Floyd, the rawness rises to the surface. It’s the horror to realize, on many levels and in spite of Billie’s suffering, in spite of her singing and telling us this story of the patriarchal suppression of her people, that it’s still an issue over 80 years later after Strange Fruit was recorded. I think the film has become more politicized because of the time in which it has arrived. Billie was an incredible activist in many ways. What she did was very brave. She wasn’t a speechwriter, she wasn’t a politician, but she chose to sing a song nearly every night for 20 years telling people to look in the mirror, and we all need to look in the mirror right now too.
MS: Amen to that.