The United States vs. Billie Holiday

 

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Lee Daniels’ biopic does little justice to the lady who sang the blues, although Andra Day certainly does.

   

United States vs. Billie Holiday, The

Arresting presence: Andra Day

  

Ma Rainey may have been the Mother of the Blues, but Billie Holiday was the lady who brought the blues to an even wider public. She performed sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall, to packed auditoria of both black and white admirers. Advance sales alone accounted for 2,700 tickets, a record at the time (1948) for that august venue. All the more surprising was that Billie Holiday had just spent ten months behind bars for the possession of narcotics. Hers was a landmark case, known as 'The United States of America versus Billie Holiday'. She was a danger to the status quo, because the lyrics to her most popular song, ‘Strange Fruit,’ was considered a call to arms for the Civil Rights movement. The government was terrified of her escalating popularity and saw only one way of silencing her: locking her up for her heroin use. They even influenced her lover, Louis McKay, to plant drugs on her person minutes before her arrest.

 

Billie Holiday’s life was a carousel of calamity. Her father abandoned his family to pursue a career as a guitarist and banjo player, and her mother was often absent. At nine, she found herself in juvenile court and was sent to reform school. When she was eleven, she was the victim of an attempted rape and, once she was released from protective custody, she scrubbed bathroom floors and ran errands for a brothel. She wasn’t even twelve. When, later, she sang the blues, she sang them from the heart.

 

Last year, Renée Zellweger won an Oscar for playing another musical icon, Judy Garland, in Rupert Goold’s Judy. The film was awkward and unconvincing, but Zellweger was a revelation. Likewise, the singer-songwriter Andra Day, who has never acted in a film before (besides providing the voice of Sweet Tea in Cars 3), is an astonishing presence. She’s at once spiky, brittle, vulnerable and volcanic, and sings all of Holiday’s songs in the latter’s inimitably raspy voice. To the surprise of many, Day won the Golden Globe trophy for best dramatic actress, beating out the likes of Viola Davis, Frances McDormand and Carey Mulligan. It was one of those left-field moments. Forty-eight years ago another singer made her film debut playing Billie Holiday, in Lady Sings the Blues. And Diana Ross was nominated for an Oscar, losing the statuette, perhaps ironically, to Liza Minnelli, the daughter of Judy Garland – for Cabaret.

 

Yet a great performance does not a great film make. Like too many biographies before it, The United States vs. Billie Holiday sweeps up the biographical high points in a stream of narrative consciousness. Many clichés of the genre are observed – the tilted lights of Broadway, the newsreel footage, the newspaper headlines – without letting us empathise for the tragic protagonist at the heart of the story. The film’s most dramatic moments are washed away in stylistic flourishes, underscored by a song or two. A straightforward courtroom drama or just a day-in-the-life might have served Billie Holiday better. Stories with this much drama in them may actually benefit from the non-fiction approach, as realised in those two outstanding documentaries on Whitney Houston: Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney (2018) and Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal's Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017).

 

Andra Day, though, is remarkable, as is Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight) as Jimmy Fletcher, who acts as both adversary and saviour. Rhodes brings charisma and compassion to his character, an enigmatic bystander who ends up engineering Billie Holiday’s downfall. He is an intriguing dramatic foil, although his own backstory steers us away from the central focus of the film. As with Juliet Taymor’s crash course in Gloria Steinem, The Glorias, there is just too much going on for the human being beneath it all to register as an empathetic axis.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Leslie Jordan, Miss Lawrence, Adriane Lenox, Natasha Lyonne, Rob Morgan, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Evan Ross, Tyler James Williams, Tone Bell, Blake DeLong, Dana Gourrier, Melvin Gregg, Erik LaRay Harvey, Ray Shell.

 

Dir Lee Daniels, Pro Lee Daniels, Jordan Fudge, Tucker Tooley, Joe Roth, Jeff Kirschenbaum and Pamela Oas Williams, Screenplay Suzan-Lori Parks, based on the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari, Ph Andrew Dunn, Pro Des Daniel T. Dorrance, Ed Jay Rabinowitz, Music Kris Bowers, Costumes Paolo Nieddu.

 

Lee Daniels Entertainment/New Slate Ventures/Roth/Kirschenbaum Films/Paramount Pictures-Sky Cinema.

130 mins. USA. 2021. Rel: 27 February 2021. Available on Sky Cinema. Cert. R.