2020 Milwaukee Film Festival: “BILLIE”
The Sound/Vision program of the Milwaukee Film Festival is always home to interesting films focusing on music. This virtual festival is no different and one of the films that just jumped out for attention was BILLIE, a documentary about the life of Billie Holiday.
Billie Holiday is, of course, one of the most acclaimed and influential singers of the 20th century. She lived a tumultuous life. Of course, that’s all ripe for a documentary. BILLIE is your typical talking heads documentary, but it’s made vital by a trove of audio recordings that are quite frank in their language and their content and, of course, archival film of Billie Holiday performing. And Billie Holiday performing is always electrifying.
Perhaps the documentary is a little unbalanced in focusing on the troubling aspects of her life. It focuses a lot on her career, her love life with a series of bad men, her addictions, and her pre-Civil Rights movement struggles. There’s little light in this documentary or insight into her craft as a singer. Still, the results are often riveting.
There’s also an unsolved mystery aspect to the documentary as the source of the audio recordings, Linda Lipnack Kuehl, died under circumstances that aren’t clear cut. There’s a film in that story itself, but it’s kind of lost here in the shadow of Billie Holiday.
Still, BILLIE is a very solid documentary of its type and offers plenty of new perspective on a great singer. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel as a film, but when you have a character of this much interest, you can let the story speak for itself. It’s a contrast to the similar THE CAPOTE TAPES in that it cuts deeper and is rawer. And you can just watch Billie Holiday perform “Strange Fruit” to hear Billie Holiday in all her complexities and glory. It’s riveting.
BILLIE is streaming throughout the 2020 Milwaukee Film Festival which runs from October 15 to 29, 2020. Tickets to individual films and passes to the festival as a whole can be purchased via Milwaukee Film.