Review: ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday,’ starring Andra Day

February 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Andra Day in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (Photo by Takashi Seida/Hulu)

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”

Directed by Lee Daniels

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S., primarily from 1947 to 1959, the dramatic film “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” features a predominantly African American cast (with some white people) who are connected in some way to legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, who is the central character in the movie.

Culture Clash: Holiday’s drug addiction and her controversial civil rights song “Strange Fruit” made her a target of the FBI, which plotted to ruin her life.

Culture Audience: “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” will appeal primarily to people who want to see a melodramatic interpretation of Holiday’s life and don’t mind if some parts of the movie are inaccurate.

Trevante Rhodes and Garrett Hedlund in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (Photo byTakashi Seida/Hulu)

If people watched the 1972 movie “Lady Sings the Blues” and the 2021 movie “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” they would wonder if Billie Holiday led different lives in alternate universes. Both movies are about Holiday, but they are very different from each other. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (directed by Lee Daniels) is the more sexually explicit, more realistic version of her life, compared to director Sidney J. Furie’s “Lady Sings the Blues” (starring Diana Ross as Holiday), which presented Holiday’s life as more of a romantic fantasy that was hindered by drug addiction. However, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” even with the benefit of a stunning performance by Andra Day and gorgeous costumes, misses the mark with an uneven tone that can’t decide if it wants to be a politically driven drama, a campy drug-addict saga or a sappy romance that was fabricated for the movie.

“Lady Sings the Blues” (written by Suzanne de Passe, Chris Clark and Terence McCloy) is more of a “rags to riches” story,” since it shows Holiday’s teen years and up to the height of her fame, but before she reached middle-age and died at the age of 44 in 1959. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”(written by Suzan-Lori Parks) is more of a “riches to downfall” story, since the movie shows Holiday (portrayed by Day) as a New York City-based diva already at the height of her fame and chronicles her continued slide into self-destruction until she was on her deathbed.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” has a brief flashback to Holiday’s childhood in Baltimore that shows her at 10 years old, living in a brothel and being told, against her will, that she will eventually have to service the clients. In real life, Holiday says she became a prostitute when she was 13. In “Lady Sings the Blues,” Holiday’s single mother Sadie is a live-in maid to a white family and let her daughter (whose birth name was Eleanora Fagan) spend time in the brothel that was run by a madam. However, in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” there is no such context to explain why the future Billie Holiday was living in a brothel as a child.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” aims to be a much more socially conscious movie than “Lady Sings the Blues” because it keeps hammering the point that the FBI conspired to ruin Holiday’s life, and her influential civil rights song “Strange Fruit” was the trigger. (The “Lady Sings the Blues” movie avoided pointing fingers at the FBI for Holiday’s downfall.) “Strange Fruit” (written by Abel Meeropol under the alias Lewis Allan) was released in 1939. It’s a poetically brutal commentary on racial injustice, particularly in describing the lynching of black people in the South.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” has an unnecessary narrative device that opens the movie in New York City in 1957, when Holiday is giving an audio interview to Reginald Lord Devine (played by Leslie Jordan), a flamboyant journalist who seems to have been written as the epitome of a white man from the South who is willfully ignorant about racial inequality. He drawls to Holiday: “Tell me, tell me, what’s it like to be a colored woman?”

This interview scenario then leads to flashbacks of Holiday’s life, primarily from 1947 to 1954, before culminating with her death in 1959. However, the writing, direction and editing for this movie are so choppy that the flashbacks are interrupted by going back to showing the annoying Devine asking silly questions. The movie would’ve been better off without this useless plot device of Holiday looking exasperated while she’s doing an interview that she clearly doesn’t want to do.

When Devine asks Holiday about “Strange Fruit” and why she creates problems for herself by singing it, she replies: “Ever seen a lynching? It’s about human rights. The government forgets that sometimes. They just want me to shut up and sing ‘All of Me.'”

The movie has repetitive scenes of Holiday arguing with people (such as a manager or nightclub owner) over wanting to sing “Strange Fruit,” but she’s often overruled. And when she does sing the song on stage at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia in 1947, her performance is cut short and she’s literally carried off stage while she’s fighting the man who’s forcing her to leave. It’s a very slapstick-type of scene that looks too over-acted.

In “Lady Sings the Blues,” drug addiction was the villain. In “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” the FBI is an additional villain, specifically the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger (played by Garrett Hedlund), who’s portrayed as ruthless, ambitious and very racist. (In case there’s any doubt that he’s racist, he uses the “n” word.)

In a 1947 government meeting in Washington, D.C., Anslinger says in some very corny dialogue: “Drugs and [a racial slur for black people] are a contamination to our great American civilization. Jazz music is the devil’s work. That’s why this Holiday has to be stopped.” Anslinger is such a stereotypical villain in the movie, that if his moustache had been long enough, he would’ve twirled it.

In this FBI meeting is attorney Roy Cohn (played by Damian Joseph Quinn), who would later become known as the right-hand man of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (played by Randy Davison) and their witch hunt against Communists. Much later in his life, Cohn was a “fixer” for many rich and famous clients, including Donald Trump. “Strange Fruit” is brought up in the meeting as a song that could incite riots, but Cohn says that trying to bust Holiday for inciting a riot would be a misdemeanor crime at worst. Cohn suggests to Anslinger that since Holiday is a well-known drug addict, it would be better to have her arrested for drugs.

And that’s why an African American FBI agent is recruited to go undercover and help the FBI arrest Holiday. His name is Jimmy Fletcher (played by Trevante Rhodes), who ends up falling deeply in love with Holiday. In fact, their romance (which is completely exaggerated for the movie) becomes such a big part of the plot that it looks very fake, especially when Fletcher ends up shooting heroin with Holiday and having shared hallucinations with her. Viewers will be rolling their eyes at this nonsense more than a junkie who’s high on drugs.

Another ridiculous thing about the movie is how in almost every performance of Holiday’s that’s shown, Fletcher and usually Anslinger are also in the audience, as if they have nothing better to do with their time than stalk her. Fletcher is portrayed as someone who’s woefully inept at being undercover. He’s also ordered to follow her on tour, but it isn’t long before Fletcher doesn’t even try to be professional, and he’s partying with Holiday and her entourage like a pathetic hanger-on.

Holiday’s bisexuality, which she was open about in real life, is briefly hinted at in scenes with Holiday and actress Tallulah Bankhead (played by Natasha Lyonne), who is only identified in the movie as a “close friend.” The well-known affair that these two women had in real life is toned down for the movie. When Anslinger interrogates Bankhead and asks her point-blank if the stories are true that she and Holiday are lovers, she doesn’t really answer the question. When journalist Devine mentions Bankhead in his awkward interview that keeps disrupting the movie’s already ragged flow, Holiday gets defensive and sidesteps the question.

As for the other lovers in Holiday’s life, the ones portrayed in the movie are two who were also her managers: John Levy (played by Tone Bell) and Louis McKay (played by Rob Morgan), who would become her second husband in 1957. (In real life, Levy was white, so the movie did a racial swap with this character.) And briefly depicted is Holiday’s first husband James Monroe (played by Erik LaRay Harvey), a pimp who became a trombonist in her band.

Monroe, Levy and McKay are all portrayed as selfish, abusive leeches, which many people who were close to Holiday say was how these three men were like in real life. It’s more realistic than how McKay (played by Billy Dee Williams) was depicted in “Lady Sings the Blues,” as her only steady lover and as a caring man who never abused her and never took advantage of her. To its credit, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” doesn’t try to make it look like Holiday’s love life was that simple.

In fact, all of the men in Holiday’s life are depicted as using her in some way. Fletcher, who’s portrayed as the only “good man” in her love life, started out as using Holiday to further his career with the FBI. Her closest “friends” are on her payroll, including her saxophonist Lester Young (played by Tyler James Williams), who’s credited in real life with giving her the nickname Lady Day, and her trumpet player/drug dealer Joe Guy (played by Melvin Gregg). She also has two sassy personal assistants named Roslyn (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and Miss Freddy (played by Miss Lawrence), who are the “court jesters” of this movie, since they provide most of the comic relief.

There’s a comedic scene that doesn’t work very well where Roslyn and Miss Freddy are invited to an elaborate funeral because Holiday has told them there’s been a death in her family. The death is shown to be serious enough that Holiday cancelled one of her shows. Roslyn and Miss Freddy go to the funeral, only to find out that it’s for Holiday’s dead Chihuahua. It’s definitely something that was fabricated for the movie, if only for the fact that planning this type of funeral would be hard to keep a secret from a celebrity’s personal assistants.

Holiday’s drug arrest in Philadelphia in 1947, as well as her subsequent imprisonment for one year, are covered in a rushed series of montages. It’s followed by a standout scene of her 1948 sold-out comeback performance at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. It was a breakthrough performance for a jazz artist at Carnegie Hall, which at the time was a venue for classical and opera music.

The FBI’s targeting of Holiday is unquestionably portrayed as racist harassment in this movie. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” shows other ways that Holiday was discriminated against because of her race. These scenes show how, even with her star status, Holiday could not escape from the systemic racism that she encountered in her everyday life.

There’s a scene where Holiday and Bankhead go to Bankhead’s apartment building, but the African American elevator attendant (played by Furly Mac) refuses to let Holiday use the lobby’s elevator because it’s the building’s policy that black people have to use the service elevator in the back. Even though Bankhead offers to take the service elevator with her, Holiday throws a fit and leaves the building in a huff, while the pain of this discrimination is on her face as she stands by herself outside. In another scene, Holiday is scheduled to perform at a major live radio broadcast, only to find out before she’s ready to take the stage that she’s been replaced by a white female singer because of the “Strange Fruit” controversy.

However, the movie falls off the rails around the time Holiday was arrested for drug possession in San Francisco in 1949. The way that the trial is depicted is fairly absurd, and it’s where the movie starts to drown in the schmaltz of Holiday and Fletcher’s romance that was contrived for the movie. Fletcher is depicted as willing to ruin his career, just to be with Holiday, when that didn’t happen in real life. Fun fact though: Fletcher’s colleague Agent Sam Williams is played by Evan Ross, who is one of Diana Ross’ sons.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is based on Johann Hari’s 2015 non-fiction book “Chasing the Scream,” which details the impact of America’s “war on drugs” and how people of color have been singled out more than white people as targets for drug arrests. Holiday’s troubles with the law are depicted as a precursor to the “war on drugs” that officially began when the Drug Enforcement Administration was formed in 1973 under then-U.S. president Richard Nixon.

However, this serious message of the film is cheapened by some dumb comedic scenes, dreadful dialogue and the unconvincing love affair between Holiday and Fletcher, who starts to romance her even more even after she’s found out that he works for the FBI. By all accounts in real life, Holiday preferred her men to be “bad boys” with shady reputations. Any sexual involvement with Fletcher would not have blossomed into the type of relationship where they’re making goo-goo eyes at each other while on a rowboat (as shown in one of the movie’s scenes), and he openly becomes her “tour boyfriend” while he’s on duty with the FBI.

Paramount Pictures was originally going to release “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” and it’s easy to see why the studio passed on it. The movie needed a massive rewrite and more cohesive direction, so that it would be more of an immersive experience instead of a series of scattershot, uneven scenes that sometimes have awkward transitions. That doesn’t mean the film is a complete disaster, but it should have been much better, considering all the talented people involved.

The high points of “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” are the electrifying performances on stage. Day (who’s a fantastic singer) does all of her own vocals in the movie. Some of the songs heard in the movie are “Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness,” “God Bless the Child,” “Lover Man,” “I Cried for You,” “Them There Eyes,” “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,” “All of Me” and “Lady Sings the Blues.” And there’s a harrowing, impactful sequence of Holiday witnessing the aftermath of a lynching, which leads to her centerpiece performance of “Strange Fruit.”

Day brings a raspy, world-weary yet edgy quality to her overall performance as Holiday that is more authentic than Diana Ross’ interpretation of Holiday as an emotionally wounded waif in “Lady Sings the Blues.” (Ross got an Oscar nomination out of it.) The costume design and production design are well-done in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” However, all of it is not enough to overcome all the tonal misfires in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” which won’t stand as the definitive Billie Holiday movie. For a more accurate and better movie about Holiday’s life, watch the documentary “Billie” instead.

Hulu will premiere “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” on February 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Billie’ (2020), an oral history of Billie Holiday’s life

February 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Bobby Tucker and Billie Holiday in “Billie” (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

“Billie” (2020)

Directed by James Erskine

Culture Representation: The documentary “Billie” features a group of white and black people, who were associated with Billie Holiday, discussing the life of the legendary jazz singer, who died at the age of 44 in 1959.

Culture Clash: Holiday battled drug addiction, and several people who knew her say that she was a target of the FBI.

Culture Audience: “Billie” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a raw and authentic look at Holiday’s life, as told by people who knew her best.

Billie Holiday in “Billie” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

The insightful documentary “Billie” (directed by James Erskine) is a highly unusual non-fiction film because most of it is based on previously unreleased audio interviews that were conducted in the 1970s. Billie Holiday is the subject of the documentary, and there’s expected archival footage of her in her film. But the interviews are by numerous people who knew her best who wouldn’t be able to be interviewed today, because almost everyone is now deceased.

Holiday, who died of heart failure and cirrhosis of the liver at age 44 in 1959, was an iconic jazz singer who was also one of the first African American entertainers to record music speaking out against racial injustice. She was a highly talented and unique star, but she also complicated and deeply troubled. Her highs, lows and everything in between are detailed in the film, but there’s still a sense of mystery about Holiday that remains to this day. (It’s one of the reasons why biopics about Holiday portray her in very different ways.)

The audio recordings in “Billie” come from the archives of New York City-based journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who died by falling from a hotel in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 1978. She was 38. The official cause of death was ruled a suicide, but her younger sister Myra Luftman (who is not interviewed on camera) says in the documentary that Kuehl probably died from foul play because of the research that Keuhl was doing for the book.

Kuehl was an experienced arts journalist who wrote for The Paris Review and The New York Times Sunday magazine. She began working on the Holiday biography in 1971 and interviewed an impressive number of people. (The documentary has lots of images of cassette recorders and reel-to-reel tap machines in operation, to give a visual representation of these interviews.) She was a perfectionist, according to her sister, which is why it took so long for Kuehl to work on the uncompleted book.

According to Luftman, her sister Kuehl was threatened by people close to Count Basie, who became close to Kuehl when she interviewed him for the book. Kuehl was twice-divorced with no children, while Basie was married with children. Although Luftman couldn’t be sure if Basie and her sister had a sexual affair, she thinks those threats might have had something to do with Kuehl’s death.

Kuehl died after attending a Basie concert in Washington, D.C. Luftman says that a big clue for her that it wasn’t a suicide was that Kuehl had a cosmetic face mask on, which was her habit when she got ready for bed. An epilogue at the end of the documentary mentions that because of the destruction of police records, “investigations into Linda’s death made during the film proved inconclusive.”

In the documentary, Luftman explains why her sister wanted to write a Billie Holiday biography: “Even thought they came from totally different backgrounds, I think she really identified with Billie. I think she felt the pain of someone’s struggles. She did not see [Billie Holiday] as the victim, which is the way she had been portrayed.”

Holiday co-wrote her 1956 memoir “Lady Sings the Blues” with William Dufty, and the book became the basis of the 1972 feature film of the same name, starring Diana Ross, who earned an Oscar nomination for her role as Holiday. The “Billie” documentary gives added depth to Holiday’s memoir, since it includes the perspectives of people who talk about things that Holiday didn’t want to talk about in her book. One thing everyone agrees on is that Holiday grew up rough and grew up fast, which undoubtedly shaped the person she became later in life.

Holiday’s birth name was Eleanora Fagan, and she was born to teenage parents in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915. Sarah Julia “Sadie” Fagan (a maid) was 13 when she gave birth to Eleanora, and Clarence Halliday (a musician) was 15. Eleanora’s parents got married when she was 3 years old, and she was raised primarily in Baltimore. Her parents split up not long after getting married, and Halliday became an absentee father who remained out of his daughter’s life.

John Fagan, a cousin of Holiday’s, says in the documentary of their upbringing in East Baltimore: “It was a nice community to live. It was a different kind of poor … We were happy with what we had.” Mary “Pony” Kane, a childhood friend of Holiday’s, remembers that Eleanor was foul-mouthed, even as a child. Eleanor’s favorite curse words were “motherfucker” and “cocksucker.”

By all accounts, Eleanor started working as a housecleaner/maid before she was a teenager. She also began hanging out at a brothel, which is where she first heard jazz music. But the time she was 13, she was a prostitute. Her cousin John says, “During them times, she had to survive. She wasn’t like a slut. She just looked fast.”

However, Holiday’s former pianist Memry Midgett says in the documentary that Holiday’s prostitution past haunted her throughout her life. Midgett says that Holiday would “talk for hours about how she started in prostitution when she was 13 years old. At the time, she had her own girls on the street. She was terribly worried about whether or not God would forgive her.”

Skinny Davenport, a pimp who knew Holiday in her prostitution days, describes how the hookers in the neighborhood were treated: “Knock ’em down, kick ’em in the ass. They loved it.” Several people in the documentary describe Holiday as a “masochist” who never knew what it was like to have a healthy love relationship when she was adult. Considering all the trauma that Holiday had when she was a child (she was also raped more than once when she was a teenager), it’s no surprise that she ended up way that she did.

In 1928, Holiday and her mother moved to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. And by the age of 14, Holiday was singing professionally in nightclubs. In an archival radio interview, Holiday says, “I always knew I could sing, but I didn’t know I could make money out of it, until I was working in a little joint called The Hot Cha.” Pigmeat Markham, an entertainer who knew Holiday in her early days as a performer, remembers that Holiday had “stagefright.”

Detroit Red, a dancer work worked with Holiday at The Hot Cha, remembers: “At that particular time, the only vice she had was smoking [marijuana] reefers.” Later, Holiday became an alcoholic and addicted to cocaine and heroin. Her drug problems led to her multiple arrests at the height of her fame. It’s implied that her addiction issues were inherited, because Sandy Williams, a bandmate of Holiday’s father Clarence, describes Clarence as a “happy-go-lucky guy” who “loved his booze” and was often drunk.

Shortly after she became a professional singer as a teenager, Holiday began working with musician/producer John Hammond, who introduced her to Benny Goodman in 1933. Hammond says of Goodman, “He slept with Billie. I was one of the people who didn’t.” Holiday was the first black singer to work with Goodman in those racially segregated times.

Holiday’s career reached a new level when she began singing for the Count Basie Orchestra. Basie’s saxophonist Lester Young is credited with giving Holiday the nickname Lady Day. Holiday’s mother Sadie (who took an interested in her daughter’s career) was nicknamed Duchess. Along with Count Basie, “we were the Royal Family,” Holiday said in an archival interview. She said of Young, who would become her constant companion: “I returned the compliment and called him the President.”

In a 1972 interview, pianist Jimmy Rowles had this to say about Holiday and Young’s relationship: “They had the funniest way of loving each other. It was brother and sister, but it was another thing … He was one of the strangest people on Earth. He was like a visitor, but she was too.”

Holiday’s time with Basie and his band ended on a sour note when she left. Depending on whom you believe, she either quit or was fired. In the documentary interview, Hammond says, “There was a real problem between Billie and Basie. She wasn’t making enough money. This was one of the principal reasons why she left the band.” Hammond estimates that Holiday’s salary with Basie was $125 a week, at the most.

However, drummer Jo Jones has a entirely different recollection of why Holiday parted ways with Basie. Jones insists: “She didn’t leave the band. She was fired by John Hammond.” Jones says that Hammond fired Holiday because she refused Hammond’s demands to sing blues music.

Kuehl is heard in the interview going back and forth with Jones and Hammond to get their reactions to these conflicting allegations. Jones gets very angry in the interview when he hears that Hammond has denied firing Holiday, while Hammond expresses bewilderment in reacting to Jones’ claims that Hammond fired Holiday.

Meanwhile, Basie doesn’t offer much insight about Holiday in his interview commentary, because he claims he didn’t really know what was going on when she was in his band. (It’s hard to believe he didn’t know.) When asked if the stories were true that Holiday had to darken her skin when performing with Basie and his band, because she was so much lighter-skinned then they were, Basie also claims ignorance about that issue.

Whatever the real reasons for Holiday’s exit from the Count Basie Orchestra, her next career opportunity was one that was groundbreaking but controversial at the time. She was the singer for Artie Shaw and His Orchestra, who were all white. Shaw, bassist Sid Weiss, guitarist Al Arola, guitarist Les Robinson and friend Mae Weiss all mention in their documentary interviews that many racist people back then refused to accept a black female singer performing with a group of white musicians.

On tour, especially in the U.S. South, they encountered a lot of vicious racism. She also got a lot of abuse and harassment from racists they encountered. Holiday was accustomed to being the only woman in a band, but with Artie Shaw and His Orchestra, she felt the pain of racial segregation, since she couldn’t she wasn’t allowed in “whites only” public places with the rest of the band, such as restaurants and hotels. The problems became too much for her, and she quit working with Artie Shaw and His Orchestra.

Being a solo act gave Holiday the freedom to record what’s considered the most important and most controversial song of her career: “Strange Fruit.” Written by Abel Meeropol under the alias Lewis Allan, and released in 1939, the song is a poetically brutal commentary on racial injustice, particularly in describing the lynching of black people in the South. “Strange Fruit” was banned from radio airplay in certain areas, and many venues forbid Holiday from performing the song.

Music producer Marty Gabler says in the documentary that Columbia Records didn’t want to release “Strange Fruit” because of “the social content and because of how unusual it was to do a protest song.” “Strange Fruit” is considered historically important because it was one of the first social justice songs released by a mainstream performer prior to the U.S. civil rights movement. Protest songs became more prevalent in the 1960s, but Holiday was a pioneer.

Cafe Society owner Barney Josephson says that it wasn’t unusual for white customers to walk out of the club and complain if Holiday performed the song. Josephson sums up the usual complaint that he got was: “We came to your nightclub to be entertained. We don’t call this entertainment.” Jazz musician Charles Mingus says “Strange Fruit” was very impactful because it shows that Holiday was “fighting for equality before Martin Luther King. The song she chose exposed discrimination, [by] putting it on stage.”

Jazz/swing singer Billy Eckstine says that one of the biggest racial inequality problems that black artists had to deal with was that their music was being controlled and judged by white people. “Get a load of the critics, the people who judge our music. There never was a black critic in swing music. Because of the power structure, [black people] never had a chance.”

As Holiday’s fame grew, so too did her notoriety for being a drug addict. Several people in the documentary say that New York City doormen (especially on 52nd Street) would regularly supply her with drugs. Joe Guy, a trumpet player in her band, was also one of her main drug connections. Holiday’s boxer dog was used as a way to transport drugs underneath the dog’s collar. Although she was a heavy user of marijuana, alcohol and cocaine, Holiday was most associated with her use of heroin and other opiates.

Several people in the documentary literally say in one way or another, “She loved to get high.” And they talk about how she had an unusually high physical tolerance for drugs that was stronger than men who were physically a lot bigger than she was. Sylvia Syms, a singer and longtime friend of Holiday’s, comments on Holiday’s drug addiction: “She really dug being high, but I never saw anyone with such a capacity.”

It’s mentioned several times in the documentary that Holiday’s well-known drug problem and the controversy over “Strange Fruit” led to a conspiracy to bring her down, with the FBI involved. Jimmy Fletcher, an African American who was a narcotics agent for the FBI at the time, says that Holiday’s agent Joe Glaser worked with the FBI to arrest her in a drug bust “for her own good.”

According to Fletcher, “He [Glaser] confided in me that he wanted to save her. And the only way to save her was to have her knocked out by the government.” George H. White, who was a narcotics agent at the time, says Holiday’s lavish lifestyle also made her a target for the FBI and other law enforcement: “Billie flaunted her way of living.”

A 1947 shootout with cops in Philadelphia led to Holiday’s first arrest for narcotics possession. She was sentenced to one year and one day in prison. The documentary includes archival news video footage of Joan Allen, a correctional officer who worked at the federal rehabilitation facility in Alderston, West Virginia, where Holiday served her prison time.

Allen shows the cell where Holiday stayed and describes Holiday as “quiet and certainly no trouble ever. She was a generous person, I’d say, in thought anyway. She never bothered anybody.” And to the best of anyone’s knowledge, Holiday didn’t sing while she was incarcerated.

Even though she performed a historic sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall after she was let out of prison in 1948 (at the time, Carnegie Hall was a venue for classical and opera music, not jazz), the damage to her reputation was done. She lost her cabaret license to perform in New York City nightclubs, thereby limiting her income options. Her second drug bust came in San Francisco in 1949, but she didn’t get any prison time for that arrest.

Dr. James Hamilton, a psychiatrist who interviewed Holiday when she was in prison, had this diagnosis of her. “She’s a psychopath.” While interviewer Kuehl can be heard gasping in shock when she hears this description, Hamilton elaborates that Holiday was “impulse-driven, strong, talented but not a dependable individual.” He noted that he thinks that Holiday’s inability to control her impulses made her psychopathic.

As for Holiday’s love life, several people in the documentary say that Holiday was openly bisexual. In a 1971 interview, Ruby Davis, who was Holiday’s roommate before the singer was famous, says that Holiday’s nickname was Mr. Billie Holiday “because she was seldom seen with fellas … Her mother put it in her mind to be careful [of men] because they’ll always break your heart, just like Billie’s father.”

Harry “Sweets” Edison, a trumpeter in the Count Basie Orchestra comments on Holiday: “She was like a man, but feminine.” John Simmons, who was her bass player and lover, calls her a “sex machine.” Music conductor Ray Ellis also comments on Holiday’s sex appeal: “I was in love with Billie, not necessarily Billie, but somebody. That voice. It turned me on.”

Although Holiday had several male and female lovers, only one woman is mentioned in the documentary as being one of her paramours: actress Tallulah Bankhead. Some people in the documentary allude to Holiday being fond of sex orgies. And it seems that Holiday didn’t want to settle down with anyone who was considered “nice” or “normal.”

Irene Kitchen, one of Holiday’s friends, mentions musician Sonny White, who was briefly Holiday’s fiancé, as “nice, quiet, a very good musician … Her mother and I hoped that she would marry him. Jimmy “Flashy” Monroe [a pimp who became a trombonist in Holiday’s band] broke them up. The next thing I know, she was using coke.”

Monroe would become Holiday’s first husband, whom she married in 1941. By all accounts, he was abusive and a heavy drug user. By the time that Holiday was arrested in 1947, she listed her marital status as “separated.” She and Monroe got divorced the same year.

Her romances didn’t get any better. John Levy became her manager and lover, even though he was married at the time. He reportedly ripped her off. Maria Bryant, a singer and friend of Holiday’s, calls Levy a “dirty, rotten, stinking bastard.”

In 1945, Holiday moved on to Louis McKay, who would become her manager and then her second husband. They got married in 1957. The documentary includes stories of people witnessing McKay (who’s been described as a mafia enforcer) being physically abusive to Holiday. Earl Zaiding, who was Holiday’s lawyer, calls McKay a “pathological liar.”

There were reports that McKay was very controlling and unscrupulous when it came to Holiday’s finances. At the time of her death, she and McKay were separated and not divorced. She had $750 to her name when she died, according to the documentary. Because McKay was still legally married to Holiday when she died, he inherited Holiday’s estate and future earnings.

Milt Hilton, a bass player who worked with Holiday during her last music recording sessions, remembers: “She was in pretty bad shape.” He took many of the widely published photos of her during these last sessions. A frail-looking Holiday is shown holding a glass of alcohol. Other people interviewed in the documentary include trombonist Melba Liston and singer Carmen McCrae.

The documentary doesn’t uncover any new visual footage of Billie Holiday. The songs that she sings in performance clips include “Strange Fruit, “Blues Are Brewin'” (with Louis Armstrong), “Fine and Mellow,” “My Man (Mon Homme),” “I Loves You Porgy,” “God Bless the Child” and “Don’t Explain,” the song that Holiday said represented her the best. There’s also a clip of her role as Endie in the 1947 film “New Orleans.”

Because “Billie” is told in chronological order of her life, the documentary has a very easy narrative to follow. Tony Bennett, who says he briefly knew Holiday, sums up the way a lot of people feel about Holiday: “She told her own story, just by being herself. She had a wild life.” He adds, “I want to know why all girl singers crack up. When they reach the top, something tragic happens.”

Greenwich Entertainment released “Billie” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 4, 2020.

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