Although Billie Holiday was among the most influential singers of the 20th century, she somehow remained an elusive presence when it came time to capturing her greatness on camera. In fact, the only filmed records of Holiday comes from two short films, a mediocre Hollywood musical, and a handful of none-too-well-preserved television appearances in the 1950s.
Nonetheless, the DVD release “The Genius of Lady Day: Billie Holiday” has gathered together all known extant footage of Holiday for a memorable package. The cornerstone of this collection is a half-hour documentary which briskly covers the crux of her tumultuous life. Photographs and vintage recordings provide a record of Holiday’s career rise and personal ruin, and the documentary repeatedly (if somewhat tactlessly) notes the vocal problems that plagued her during her final years.
But the real treasure here is the collection of Holiday’s filmed performances. The two short films, one from 1936 in which Holiday was not given screen credit and one from 1950 when she shared the bill with Count Basie and “Sugar Chile” Robinson, were typical all-black revues that serve primarily as historic records rather than artistic triumphs. Holiday’s sole feature film, the 1947 muck “New Orleans,” gives her a supporting role as a maid who teaches a rich white girl about jazz. Holiday was no actress (her line readings are crashingly bad), but her vocal prowess was peerless and her duets with Louis Armstrong were the only reason the film is recalled today.
Holiday’s work on television is much more intriguing. Most of the kinescopes are not of a pristine visual quality, but Holiday nonetheless comes across as an enigmatic and hypnotic presence. Visibly aged and ill from drug addiction and other personal problems, she finds the hurt and emotion in her songs. Her rendition of “Strange Fruit” from a TV guest appearance is harrowing, as she seemingly embodies the bitterness and rage of the lyrics. Her take on “I Loves You Porgy” (from “Porgy and Bess”) is fascinating in its rather casual approach to the song’s plea of eternal love – you get the feeling her expression of love is not entirely sincere, which is a fascinating interpretation of the well-worn song.
Holiday addicts must possess this wonderful DVD release. And for those new to Lady Day, this is a great place to start.