Framing a whole movie around the incredible talent that was Billie Holiday seems like a recipe for a sure fire hit, while I’m sure this was the intent, the outcome of the movie tends to be saying “this is about a junkie who can sing incredibly well” which is not a bad premise for a movie, it all comes down to the execution which if not for the incredibly commanding presence of Andra Day playing Holiday, the rest of the film falls flat.
The United States Vs. Billie Holiday follows the life of soul singer Billie Holiday (Andra Day) who struggles with an addiction to drugs, alcohol and bad relationships. While she is at the top of her game career wise with sold out tours and hit records, her constant substance abuse which she is convinced helps her put on a good show, is used against her when the chief of the United States Bureau of Narcotics Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) sends spies to plant drugs on Holiday in an attempt to have her convicted and jailed as she continues to sing her controversial song Strange Fruit that shines a light on the government’s treatment of african american citizens.
Albeit this relationship between Holiday and Anslinger comes to a head and if you know the history, it is messy and complicated and the film really gets this part right. Where it starts to fall is leaning far too much into the junkie side of Holiday. Instead of having her painted as a tortured soul living through one of the toughest times in history, often at times it focuses too much on the needle going into her arm and the band of men surrounding her that are using her for money and connections. The exception to this is Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) who as a federal agent of colour, must play along with Anslinger’s vendetta against Holiday and plays an instrumental part in her conviction. Feeling the fallout from this, Fletcher attempts redemption by following Holiday on the road and providing testimony in court defending her while eventually falling in love with her and staying by her side till her dying moments, despite her constant rejection and advances.
The firehouse performance from Day who completely inhabits Holiday is impossible to look away from. She is not afraid to dive into the deep tragedy and despair of this character while also able to capture the audience with captivating shows. It’s a shame that Hedlund comes off a little cartoonish when his actions are so gruesome. While we never get a Holiday vs Anslinger head to head moment as his accusations and scheming is dealt with by courts filled with white men and blackmailing black federal agents to turn against Holiday.
The film is directed by Lee Daniels and while the focus on drugs is definitely an interesting choice, a steadier hand with the editing could have yielded a tighter runtime and improved the flow of the story. It’s not all bad, the film is worth seeing for the performance of Day alone and her complicated relationship with Fletcher in an unforgiving world As the years go on for Holiday her brief relationship with Taullulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne) is far too brief in the film as their chemistry and scenes together are among the best.
The United States Vs Billie Holiday has an incredible message and shines a spotlight on an incredibly awful moment in history. Instead of focusing on this, the film showcases addiction and drugs as far too much of a preference to the events and lynching happening outside of the world of showbiz. Day dazzles as Holiday and her vocal range had me questioning if they used Holiday’s recordings in the musical numbers. Her chemistry with Taullulah is brief but beautiful and an expansion of their time together along with snappier editing in other parts of the film could have produced a more cohesive story. While it is a little disappointing, the film itself is still worth watching simply from its message and performances.
The United States Vs Billie Holiday is in cinemas Thursday April 22nd.
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