Medici Arts

Matthew Seig’s Lady Day – The Many Faces of Billie Holliday intersperses Ruby Dee’s reading of passages from Holliday’s autobiography with interviews of luminaries, such as Carmen McRae and Buck Clayton, to tell the tortured tale of the much abused but vocally triumphant singer. While one might think an autobiography would provide all the insight needed to examine an artist’s life, the interviewees are quick to point out the puzzling errors and exaggerations in Holiday’s version of her story. These individuals also shed light on the fact that Holiday could not read music and learned much of her musical styling by studying the vocal phrasing used by Louis Armstrong. Considering her lack of musical training and her hardscrabble childhood amongst the pimps and whores of Fells Point in Baltimore, much of the film is dedicated to Holiday achieving success against all odds. A plethora of fine television clips round out this richly detailed story, including a spine-chilling, full version of the infamous “Strange Fruit” and a nasty version of “Fine and Mellow” with Holiday and saxophonist Ben Webster making musical love to one another.

This originally aired as part of the PBS Masters of American Music series.