Like the recent Judy (about the tragic Judy Garland), The United States vs Billie Holiday is a biopic featuring a talented but self-destructive singer who shone briefly and died too early. This film follows many of the familiar tropes of this rich sub-genre.
The product of a turbulent childhood Billie Holiday was a jazz singer who rose to fame in the 40s and 50s. Her career was beset by lots of legal and personal problems, troubled relationships with abusive men, and alcohol and drug addiction. The film manages to work in some details about her troubled childhood – raised in a brothel run by her mother, being raped at a young age, and her erratic behaviour. One of her most famous songs was “Strange Fruit”, written in 1937 by Abel Meeropol. Its controversial lyrics protested the lynching of African Americans with poetic imagery. The song was named by Time magazine as one of the greatest songs of the century.
“Strange Fruit” became something of a touchstone for the burgeoning civil rights movement, but it also put her in the cross hairs of the US government, and, in particular corrupt and openly racist Narcotics Agent Harry Anslinger who persecuted her, often using illegal methods and entrapment. He even pressured her abusive husband to plant drugs on her. Holiday was arrested on drugs charges and imprisoned in 1947 and spiralled into drug abuse after her release.
This film follows Holiday through the later stages of her life and depicts her battles with drugs and alcohol, her troubled tour across America and her defiance of the government that tried to stop her from singing “Strange Fruit”. In 1959 while she was hospitalised and lay dying, she was handcuffed to her hospital bed by the authorities.
Holiday’s story was previously depicted in the 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues, which featured Diana Ross in her Oscar nominated film debut. Likewise, this biopic also casts Grammy nominated singer Andra Day in the role of the tragic and flawed Holiday, and she totally inhabits the role with a moving and powerful performance. And her performance is easily the best thing about this flawed and unnecessarily bloated film. Day undergoes a remarkable transformation to capture the essence of Holiday – she lost weight to play the addicted singer, she even took up smoking and drinking to give her voice that raspy quality. And, of course, she delivers some of Holiday’s signature tunes in fine style.
The United States vs Billie Holiday has been written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Girl 6), and is loosely based on one chapter of Johann Hari’s 2015 non-fiction book Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, which looked at the US government’s campaign against narcotics. Parks has researched Holiday’s life in some detail, but she and director Lee Daniels (The Butler) have taken liberties with Holiday’s story for dramatic effect. Daniels seems to have concentrated more on America’s history of racism and the racial politics of the era, and how that shaped Holiday’s persona rather than her successful singing career. Daniels also plays up Holiday’s role as an emerging leader of the civil rights movement through her outspoken criticism of the US government.
But this is at times a muddled and messy film that seems to lack a coherent focus, and its chronology is a little uncertain. There are a few missteps along the way from Daniels. He uses a clumsy and cliched framing device that bookends much of the drama – a fictitious interview with a flamboyant and camp radio host (Leslie Jordan) that adds little. And there is Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), an FBI agent who goes undercover as part of Holiday’s entourage in order to gather evidence of her drug abuse for Anslinger. He has a torrid sexual relationship with the singer, and conflicted about his duty he later makes an effort to atone for his role in her persecution.
Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) gives a strong performance as the openly racist Anslinger who was obsessed with destroying Holiday by any means available. Natasha Lyonne (Russian Doll) plays actress Tallulah Bankhead who had a strong friendship with the troubled singer, a relationship that was viewed with suspicion by some people in authority. Rhodes is charismatic and charming as Fletcher, a fictitious character created to serve the narrative arc of Holiday’s journey.
The United States vs Billie Holiday is something of a disappointing and at times dreary biopic. Anyone wanting to learn more about the singer and her troubled life would do well to check out the superior Lady Sing the Blues.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Bohemian Rhapsody – movie review
- At Eternity’s Gate – movie review
- Sound of Metal (Amazon Prime) – movie review
Greg King has had a life long love of films. He has been reviewing popular films for over 15 years. Since 1994, he has been the film reviewer for BEAT magazine. His reviews have also appeared in the Herald Sun newspaper, S-Press, Stage Whispers, and a number of other magazines, newspapers and web sites. Greg contributes to The Blurb on film