In the opening performance of a new documentary, Billie Holiday is mesmerizing in full color. The original, decades-old footage has been colorized for emphasis, like the way her eyebrow arches to punctuate a lyric as she sings.
The scene is also a mission statement of sorts: The film, “Billie,” wants to go beyond the black-and-white — and incomplete — narrative of self-destructive jazz artists.
Shortly after that opening scene, Sylvia Syms, herself an admired jazz singer and friend of Holiday’s, is heard on tape saying that she “saw the whole world in that face. All of the beauty and all of the misery.”
“Billie” covers biographical details about Holiday that have filled past books and articles: drug use, her sexuality, and the abuse she experienced before her death in 1959. The documentary is also organized around approximately 200 hours of interviews conducted over the course of a decade by Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who, as the film notes, didn’t like seeing Holiday presented as a victim.