When it comes to American jazz and swing music, there are few greater icons than Billie Holiday. A magnetic, generational talent whose personal vices and struggles only served to further her legend, Holiday has been the subject of critically acclaimed works before, most notably Lady Sings The Blues starring Diana Ross in 1972. Most of us know about the music, but how much do you know about the persistent government interference that the singer had to deal with during the course of her career? Aiming to provide a slice of this particular element rather than a full biopic, Lee Daniels stepped up to the plate with The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday tells the story of a years long period of Billie Holiday’s (Andra Day) life in which she faced regular battles with the American government. There were two reasons for this targeted action, the first to use Holiday’s heroin use to racialise the emerging ‘war on drugs’, and the second to suppress the singing of her controversial hit Strange Fruit. In a sort of fusion of Judy and Judas And The Black Messiah, the narrative proceeds as a drama that highlights both the intricacies and self destructive tendencies of a music genius, and just how far the authorities would go to silence the voice of an enigmatic and potentially influential star of the time.
All that sounds pretty great, right? That’s why it’s so frustrating to report that The United States vs. Billie Holiday is kind of a mess. The film is truly erratic, and not in an artistic sense that mirrors Holiday’s own erratic life, but rather in the sense that the filmmaker isn’t succeeding in harnessing the story at all. One one hand, Lee Daniels sticks painfully close to the playbook in terms of generic biopic fodder, but compounding that picture’s fate even further is the fact that whenever the film does attempt anything out of the ordinary like a strange drug fuelled dream sequence, that doesn’t really work either.
I’m actually quite staggered as to how a film about someone as inherently interesting as Billie Holiday could be made to feel so mundane and boring, but somehow that’s what has happened here. At two hours and ten minutes in length, it hugely outstays its welcome. The first time I looked at the clock, only fourteen minutes had passed. Fourteen! As with any real life legend, the mere presence of Billie Holiday and the numerous musical numbers across the film do provide welcome distraction and breathe life into the very dry drama, but even then it doesn’t feel like Lee Daniels is making the most of what he has. Going back to last year’s Judy, that was another ‘moment in a life’ kind of biopic that perhaps didn’t hit the heights I wanted it to, but something it did get right was hammering home the impact of the songs. The United States vs. Billie Holiday essentially builds up to the moment when the audience finally gets to hear Strange Fruit, and I hate to say it, but the impact just isn’t there.
The glaring redeeming quality that film possesses is the performance of its leasing lady, Andra Day. As Billie Holiday, Day certainly has the voice, and for practically a feature debut (barring a voice role in Cars 3) she also manages to really effectively balance the half ferocious, half fragile headspace that Holiday operates within over the course of the movie. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Day’s winning of the Best Actress Golden Globe was a major upset at this year’s ceremony, but at the same time I can’t argue that the performance isn’t worthy. Day didn’t *absolutely* blow me away, but the fact that she is able to pull such a striking performance out of the frankly lacklustre material and direction with which she has to work is nothing short of a miracle. There’s no getting away from the fact that Billie Holiday lived a hedonistic lifestyle, but this film takes that hedonism, strips away any fleeting pleasure, and only showcases the suffering. It’s hard work.
The cast of supporting actors including Trevante Rhodes, Natasha Lyonne, Evan Ross, Tone Bell, Erik LaRay Harvey, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Garrett Hedlund all put in solid enough work without being remarkable. As is usually the case with any ‘icon’ biopic, the only performance the film really cares about is that of the protagonist, and this proves to be both its greatest asset and biggest flaw.
Overall, I have to chalk The United States vs. Billie Holiday up as a huge disappointment on a full picture level. It joins a long list of biopics that do not much else but shine an award winning spotlight on their star, and Andra Day definitely does shine here. It’s just a shame that Lee Daniels’ direction appears to actively work against making the movie any kind of captivating. This particular performance deserved to be in a better film, one that isn’t a confused mess, and one that isn’t committed to only dwelling on the misery.