“I want to know why all girl singers crack up,” says Tony Bennett at the beginning of this revealing documentary.
“When they hit the top, something tragic happens. I want to know what causes it.”
Bennett isn’t talking about his duet with Amy Winehouse, and this isn’t an outtake from his interview in Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning Amy.
Like the vast majority of the audio in James Erskine’s film it was recorded in the 1970s by Linda Kuehl, a journalist who was preparing a biography of late jazz singer Billie Holiday when she was found dead in February 1978.
For Erskine, Kuehl’s mountain of cassettes is like a time capsule, allowing him to tell Holiday's story through the mostly dead voices of those who knew her best.
Her friends, fellow musicians, managers and even her shameless childhood pimp offer plenty of reasons for the singer to "crack up".
“They knew nothing about her – all they knew was what was in it for them,” says drummer Jo Jones, another line that could have worked in that Winehouse documentary.
Holiday was exploited from a young age. Drugs and an addiction to abusive men took their toll.
But she isn’t just a victim, Erskine also gives us plenty of reminders of her genius, with live footage filmed across her tragically short career.
A spine-tingling performance of her singing her 1939 anti-lynching ballad Strange Fruit still retains its power to shock. At the time audiences were stunned into silence and the authorities were irked.
In her later life, the police seemed determined to catch her in possession of heroin. As one officers attests, she was targeted like a king pin dealer rather than an addict.
Sadly, a parallel investigation in the life of death of Kuehl is less rewarding.
Erskine tries to link the dark forces in Holiday's life with the circumstances surrounding the writer's apparent suicide.
Kuehl's family suspect she may have been murdered but a hinted-at conspiracy never comes into focus.
In select UK cinemas and on demand at the Barbican and EFG London Jazz Festival from 13th November. It will also be available digitally on Amazon and iTunes from 16th November.
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