Synopsis: The Federal Bureau of Narcotics launches an undercover sting operation against jazz singer Billie Holiday.
Stars: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Melvin Gregg, Natasha Lyonne, Tyler James Williams, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Rob Morgan, Miss Lawrence, Evan Ross, Tone Bell
Director: Lee Daniels
Running Length: 130 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: When jazz singer Billie Holiday died at the age of 44 on July 17, 1959 she left behind a personal and professional history that seems like it was written for the movies. A tumultuous upbringing that saw her bounced around between relatives and winding up in the workhouse at 14 with her mother led to her origins as Harlem nightclub singer. From there, her career took off thanks to her beauty, unique voice, and the way she could interpret a song and hold the attention of audiences that would pack the house. By the time she began singing the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” at the Café Society in 1939, she was a bona fide star, which made her struggles with alcohol, drugs, and affairs of the heart fodder for gossip columnists and government officials alike.
The life of Holiday has already immortalized on screen in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues for which Diana Ross nabbed a Best Actress Oscar nomination and onstage with Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill that began life in 1986 before debuting on Broadway in 2014, winning star Audra McDonald the final Tony Award she needed to be the first person ever to win the top theatrical award in all four acting categories (Play and Musical). Countless books have been written, documentaries have been made, recordings have been remastered (Amazingly, she won all four of her Grammy’s posthumously), and in 2017 the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame inducted Holiday into its ranks.
So what’s left to tell of the brief but bold life of Lady Day? Why are we here in 2021 reviewing The United States vs. Billie Holiday which Hulu is releasing on February 26? According to the production notes, Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks has adapted Johann Hari’s 2015 novel Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs but from the homework I’ve done it appears that Holiday is but a small part of that larger novel. So it sees that what Parks and director Lee Daniels (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) have done is taken that passage and used that as the jumping off point to cover a certain swath in Holiday’s later life when she was in the thick of her addictions, putting a bullseye on her back for the FBI to silence her.
Had the virtuoso Parks been left to her own devices, I’m fairly certain a case could be made that The United States vs. Billie Holiday would have been a worthwhile endeavor for those involved and, eventually, the viewer. Sadly, something has been severely lost in translation. Under the tragically overworked direction from Daniels, not only is the movie uniquely bad as film in general (casting, editing, cinematography, you name it), from the standpoint of the basic language of filmmaking there’s a disquieting level of, let’s just say it, incompetence on display. Anyone aiming to tell the story of the doomed singer is obviously coming from a place of respect, so why did this movie wind up so laborious, gratuitous, skeevy, humorless, and boring?
I can tell you one place you most definitely cannot place the blame and that’s with the film’s mesmerizing star, musician Andra Day. While Ross drew strong reviews for her interpretation of Holiday, even her most ardent fans knew it was just that…an interpretation. Day goes a step further and convincingly channels the late singer in body, mind, spirit, and voice and the results are stunning. A successful transition from the concert stage to the big screen that’s every bit as on par with the work Lady Gaga did in 2018’s A Star is Born, Day is so exemplary in detailing Holiday’s high and low points that even in the best circumstances everyone else sharing the screen with her would have had to work that much harder to be noticed. The performance is huge in size but never steps over into the deadly temptation of arch showiness — Day is truthful in each second, each breath as Holiday. If only she had the same support around her.
That’s where we start to run into rough waters in the aimless sea Daniels has set Day adrift in. Despite the appearance of strong character actors that have made excellent contributions to films in the past, like Da’Vine Joy Randolph for instance, it doesn’t feel as if anyone knows exactly what the tone of the film is supposed to be. Is it the tell-all biopic a fey gossip monger played by Leslie Jordan in the first of several hideous wigs and hastily applied bald caps the cast hopes you’ll gracefully forgive? Or is it the insider’s view of the FBI’s continued targeting of Holiday by a bigoted federal agent played by Unbroken‘s Garrett Hedlund, tall and sporting a Brylcreem ‘do, looking hysterically nothing like his short, squat and very bald real life counterpart who we see in the end credits. Perhaps it might travel into a doomed love story between Holiday and the series of men that never have her best interest in mind and showed their love for her via violence and rough bedroom relations?
Whatever the thought-process was, what we never get is substantial insight into Holiday that’s any deeper than your standard fact sheet. In its place, Daniels opts to show Holiday at her worst and Day at her most exposed, hardly missing the opportunity to feature the star without her clothes on or in a compromised state. When the screenplay does diverge from the wallow, it offers a brief glimpse into her brothel-reared childhood, but the acting is so unconvincing and forced that it hardly seems worth the time spent. Leading up to this scene is one of the movie’s three most impactful moments and it comes from an unscheduled pit stop Holiday makes while on tour and the horrifying scene she finds in a field. This leads her into a nightmare sequence and, eventually, this poorly played childhood memory but up until then there’s a flash of creative energy where it comes across as if she’s entered a haunted house in her own mind.
The centerpiece of the film is Day’s performance of “Strange Fruit” and it will make the hairs on the back of your neck on end. Up until that point Daniels, cinematographer Andrew Dunn (The Bodyguard), and editor Jay Rabinowitz (Irresistible) have covered Day’s full length performances with a lot of useless camera tricks and other distractions that are kind of appalling but here they just let their star sing, often directly to us out in the darkness of the crowd and the results are chilling. Holiday’s final days were anything but peaceful and Day plays these increasingly grotesque scenes with a masterful touch, refusing to be bullied by the law that continued to hound her until the end nor let the men in her life (including an oddly detached Trevante Rhodes from Moonlight and The Predator) dominate her like they did when she had the strength to fight them off but didn’t.
The life of Billie Holiday deserves a better telling than this and a performance like the one Day is giving is owed a better movie to house it. A film of this size needs more care from a director that will take it seriously but not weigh it down with unnecessary excesses of their own design. Several graphic sex scenes feel overly gratuitous and don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know; all they serve is to take us out of the moment and feel as if Day and her costars were exploited somehow by Daniels. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t say that the film is, well, ugly to look at. The production design might look good in person, but you’d hardly know it since the movie is so poorly lit and, at times, out of focus. Several stock reels used as inserts look like they were rescued from underwater in a basement storage room and the bizarre and incongruous ending credits truly must be seen to be believed. It’s just a poorly constructed film from a filmmaker that should know much, much better.
It pains me to no end to say it, but I still think you need to see The United States vs. Billie Holiday because Day’s performance alone is so good it outweighs the simple truth everything else about the movie is so extremely bad. Try not to think about what could have been when you see how skillfully Day moves through each scene and handles difficult material, both in the script and what is just being asked of her physically. If you can’t commit to the bloated 130-minute run time, at least track down a clip of Day singing “Strange Fruit” because that’s really the pinnacle of the movie.