Music biopics have long explored the highs and lows of living in the public eye. Often it’s a standard template whereby beloved singers have their inner lives exposed fictitiously for the sake of narrative momentum and drama. In recent years, both Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody looked at substance abuse in the face of fame and fortune. For better or worse, the new Lee Daniels’ film The United States v.s. Billie Holiday is no different.
The first 45 minutes showcase Billie Holiday’s career highs performing for excited crowds and looks at how Holiday was targeted for years by the Federal Department of Narcotics for singing what they deemed to be a politicized song inciting riots, Strange Fruit. Lee is blessed with Andra Day’s stunning performance, best known for her song Rise Up, which has become a staple for amateur singers on competition shows like The Voice and American Idol. She inhabits the role effortlessly with truth, and it’s so easy to succumb to her smoky vocals.
However, the film falters in its second half by meandering through Holiday’s post-prison life without a through-line. Story threads are forgotten, and the tone shifts between moody effervescent lighting and sweeping montages to repetitive vignettes of Holiday’s struggles, particularly with the cruel men in her life, to get her career back on track. Falling into familiar musical biopic tropes, Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday is overlong, unfocused, yet graciously absorbing.
In 1937, a bill introduced to ban lynching did not pass. As a response to the ongoing violence against black people, Billie Holiday (Andra Day), already a star, rose to infamy with her song Strange Fruit, which depicts lynching in a sorrowful tune, interestingly written by a Jewish school teacher in the Bronx. But as the drug crisis continues to rise in the ’30s and ’40s, Holiday’s song performance becomes the ire of the Federal Department of Narcotics, with chief Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) seeking to destroy Holiday’s career.
We are catapulted back ten years to Holiday singing in the Cafe Society. She’s married to a vicious man Monroe (Erik Laray Harvey), and shoots up heroin before her performance. The crowds adore Holiday, who, with her sultry voice, entrances the audience. After her performance, a man dressed in soldier fatigues, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes, abs and all), tries to meet Holiday but is pushed out of the room. Monroe tells Holiday she can’t sing Strange Fruit anymore because, ‘I’m trying to protect your ass,’ but Billie knows his interests lie closer with the feds.
When Billie has a moment alone with Fletcher, she notes that anytime someone of color is doing something right, they paint them all wrong. She waltzes around the room to a tune in her head, charming Fletcher with her confidence, but he harbors his secrets. As Holiday gets on stage again, cops line the back of the theater at the request of Anslinger, who contends that she is inciting a riot by singing the song. Well, after the first few notes, she sings Strange Fruit in defiance and is whisked off stage, sentenced to a year and a day in prison. Holiday asserts she needs to be in a hospital to help her overcome addiction, but instead, she suffers withdrawals in prison and harsh daily life until her release.
Through the ups and downs, Holiday’s friends Freddy (Miss Lawrence) and Roslyn (an underused Da’Vine Joy Randolph) always remain by her side. Her career takes beating after beating as the feds relentlessly pursue her. Eventually, they send Jimmy Fletcher to tail Holiday’s tour, where he starts to understand the more enormous implications of her actions and his naive deceit.
The script was written by Suzan-Lori Parks and is based on the book Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. It seems that once Holiday goes to prison, the story flails, trying relentlessly to find its grounding. Of course, Billie Holiday is riveting, and the visceral performance by Andra Day is reason enough to see the film, but there’s a missed opportunity here.
Perhaps the film may have benefited from a more linear story that followed Holiday’s initial performance of the song and subsequent targeting by the Feds. But neither director Lee Daniels nor Parks can bring the film to a specific destination. Holiday’s affair with Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne) is wasted. Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Can we please get a season 2 of High Fidelity for Cherise?) and Miss Lawrence are frequently sidelined. What’s most confusing is why an interview between Holiday and gossip columnist Reginald Lord Devine (a giddy Leslie Jordan) is used as a device to begin the story and presumably bookend the film, but instead is cut off midway through the movie.
Yet this is Andra Day’s film. She commands every scene and shines on stage. Day ensures that Holiday’s story is present, affecting, and unwasted. It’s a star-making performance. That the film diverts to her affair with Jimmy Fletcher is unfortunate, mainly as Lee’s hazy, heavy-handed transitions and unfocused storytelling keep the movie from soaring.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is filled with many ideas, but as Holiday notes at one point, ‘I don’t like the quiet.. so noisy, you know?’
Thankfully, Daniels makes sure her voice and influence are never muted.