Billie is one of the most enduring legends in jazz, and even folks who could name you a single one of her songs probably knows that she was once a prostitute and wore a gardenia in her hair. And frankly, those people could have made this brief, half-assed documentary about the great singer.
Clocking in at less than half-an-hour, The Life and Artistry of Lady Day is a quick and superficial amble through the life of a great musician. It contains a few great clips of Holiday—after all, the few obvious ones are here, and they are terrific—but it is otherwise obvious, superficial, and ridiculous condensed. Given it’s length, I can only assume it was made to air on TV. But frankly, it’s hard to imagine a TV audience that care enough about Billie (or about music generally) to watch this that would not also find it thin.
Holiday’s life is famously complex. Raised in Baltimore mostly by her mother, Billie was in reform school by ten. At 13, she and her mother had moved to New York, where she was sexually abused and wound up turning tricks by the time she was 15. She started singing, however, and John Hammond hooked her up to record with no less an artist than Benny Goodman by the time she was 18. Some journey.
But this documentary breezes through all this early, juicy material almost as quickly as I just did. And it keeps on breezing as it goes along, managing to stretch itself to 28-minutes only by playing a fairly long clip from her one film, 1947’s New Orleans with Louis Armstrong and by indulging multiple times in her appearance on the CBS TV show “The Sound of Jazz”, singing “Fine and Mellow” with Lester Young and a crack band. This material really can’t be argued with, but it has been available on its own forever. This little film adds nothing to these primary sources.
Worse, it doesn’t even try.
When you realize what is not here, what the filmmakers did not even try for, you get sort of angry. There are no interviews here. None of Holiday’s contemporaries were interviewed about her, nor are any old interviews referenced. There’s been no attempt to ask the singers and musicians influenced by her about her legacy. No historians are consulted on camera. There isn’t a critic in sight. Nothing is presented other than some narrated facts, a dash of music, and archived photos. In the “special” features section, you get an extended clip from New Orleans, and that’s it.
And watching it, you can’t help but feel that, somehow, even these long years after her death, Billie Holiday is once again getting taken advantage of. The exploitation continues—the good old kind, which is cheapexploitation. This film hardly gets at the singer’s true “artistry”, and it buries her life in just a few paragraphs. The narrator’s fancy accent is hardly enough to pretty things up.
Almost 50 years later, Holiday’s sad and partly triumphant story is still ours to trivialize. Sad.
The great music is still easily available—downloadable on iTunes for less than a buck-a-bop, and each four minute chunk is still astonishing gold. Instead of putting up with this film’s fragments of “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit”, do yourself a favor. Go get the real stuff. “Nice Work If You Can Get It”. “Good Morning Heartache.”
Coded into those performances is Billie’s whole life in much more detail than this documentary could even imagine. Soak it up.
Nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try.