Review: The United States vs Billie Holiday is lifted by its fine star Andra Day

The United States vs Billie Holiday (MA, 130 minutes)

Three stars

This film falls into the same category as Bohemian Rhapsody: it's an interesting musical biopic with a lot of faults and fabrications, given a big boost by the songs and, especially, by a strong lead performance. Whether or not Andra Day wins an Oscar, as Rami Malek did playing Freddy Mercury, remains at the time of writing to be seen, but she wouldn't be undeserving. Apparently the singer, originally Cassandra Monique Batie, chose the name Andra Day in tribute to Holiday, who was dubbed Lady Day, so her casting seems doubly apt. Unlike some actors in musical biopics, Day sings the songs herself and does a credible imitation of Holiday's distinctive voice.

Andra Day stars in The United States Vs Billie Holiday. Picture: Takashi Seida.

Andra Day stars in The United States Vs Billie Holiday. Picture: Takashi Seida.

Day, a singer in her first lead movie role, plays Billie Holiday, the legendary jazz singer with a turbulent and troubled personal life. This isn't the first Holiday biopic: Diana Ross, another singer, played her in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), which I haven't seen, but the new film's timing, given the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, is apt.

Suzan Lori-Parks' screenplay is structured primarily around flashbacks that arise whie Holiday is interviewed by the fatuous (and fictional) radio journalist Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan). It's a lazy and unnecessary device that distracts from the story.

The film focuses on Holiday's life in the 1940s and 50s. Although she was a well-known and popular singer, she was persecuted by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (which later became the Narcotics Enforcement Agency) because of her heroin addiction and her insistence on singing Strange Fruit, Abel Meeropol's stark, haunting 1937 song about lynching in the South.

Agency head Harry Anslinger (Garret Hedlund), a virulent racist, is behind the harassment of Holiday and sends an African-American agent, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), to gain her confidence and set up a sting operation. Fletcher is conflicted but is convinced he is doing good by tackling the scourge of drugs scourge even though another character points out such actions are primarily directed at minorities.

The two-hours-plus film, directed by Lee Daniels (Precious) feels too narrowly focused, with Holiday enduring a sad cycle of drugs, abuse, harassment and betrayal. It's compelling dramatically, at least for a while, but becomes repetitive.

Much of the film is apparently fabricated even beyond what needed to happen for narrative purposes.

The film is so intent on depicting the undoubted injustices done to Holiday and portraying her as a civil rights martyr that it doesn't feel like it's providing a very rounded portrait. There's a flashback to her childhood when her mother, a prostitute, kicks her out of the brothel in which they live, but we don't get much other information about her. A couple of brief scenes with one of her reputed lovers, actress Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne) don't add much depth or insight or even a sense that Holiday got any great pleasure from the relationship, or anything else, except perhaps the temporary high of drugs.

Even the account of her trial and imprisonment falls a bit flat.

Much of the film is apparently fabricated even beyond what needed to happen for narrative purposes. There doesn't seem to be evidence that Holiday and Fletcher had a sexual relationship or that he followed her while she toured across the country or visited her on her deathbed - though the time she stripped naked when he came to arrest her is, apparently, true. Why Holiday let Fletcher stick around even after it was obvious his motives were less than pure isn't convincingly explained even in the movie's fictionalised version of events.

Despite its flaws, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is worth seeing if you're interested in Holiday, the early years of the War on Drugs, the civil rights movement, or the music. And a note that a federal anti-lynching bill has yet to be passed is a reminder that there's still a long way to go (Seen at Dendy).

This story Excellent lead lifts Holiday biopic first appeared on The Canberra Times.