Andra Day puts her vocal skills to impressive use playing the role of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” a striking biopic about the singer’s turbulent life and the government’s efforts to censor her.
Directed with flair by Lee Daniels, this showy biopic about the talented but short-lived songstress is at its most enjoyable when Holiday’s musical skills take center stage, less so in its efforts to dramatize the government’s hamfisted attempts to stop her from singing her hauntingly beautiful anti-lynching protest song, “Strange Fruit.” Based on a chapter from the book, “Chasing the Dream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” and adapted by Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, the script offers a rambling ride through the singer’s drug-induced prime, giving viewers an intimate look at a troubled soul whose life and career was cut short by her self-destructive tendencies. Given the wild and complicated life that Holiday led, this biopic offers no shortage of intensely dramatic moments, though Daniels’ ostentatious directing style occasionally causes the material to veer into melodrama. Still, the elegant musical sequences, highlighted by Andra Day’s showstopping performance, are more than enough for audiences to swing along to this jazzy piece.
Using a radio interview Holiday gave shortly before her death as a framing device, the film kicks off in the late 1940s, when Billie Holiday (Andra Day) was wowing audiences at the renowned Cafe Society jazz club in Greenwich Village. Despite her growing stardom, Holiday faces many personal and professional frustrations, from rampant drug use and abusive men to money woes and also some blowback for performing her anti-lynching protest song, Strange Fruit. Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) considers the song a dangerous rallying cry for the Civil Rights Movement, so he singles out Holiday as a central target for a drug bust, assigning street agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) to infiltrate her crew.
This deception leads to a yearlong jail sentence, after which Holiday returns stronger than ever and with a renewed sense of purpose, resulting in a string of sold-out Carnegie Hall shows. However, in spite of her success, her personal troubles persist, continuing down a turbulent path of drugs, dangerous men, and more legal problems. But in spite of her troubles, Holiday’s singular talents shine through the tragic aspects of her life.
With “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” director Lee Daniels finds a fitting outlet to showcase his flamboyant filmmaking style, always going big in his depiction of Holiday’s life even when certain scenes could have used some restraint. This showy quality mostly compliments the material, with the musical sequences being a particular standout, but occasionally it also leads to excess. However, despite some occasional tonal issues, the film has a freewheeling quality that lends itself nicely to a biopic about a jazz singer, and in both structure and style Daniels succeeds in capturing Holiday’s rebellious spirit. Helping Daniels achieve this feat is the appealing camerawork of cinematographer Andrew Dunn, the brilliant production and costume design by Daniel T. Dorrance and Paolo Nieddu, and the soulful score by Kris Bowers.
For a biopic about Billie Holiday to really hit the high notes, it requires an actress of considerable range, and thankfully Daniels found that performer in Andra Day, the Grammy nominated singer who only had a handful of minor acting credits prior to this breakout performance. Capturing Holiday’s inner demons and onstage exploits with impressive skill, Day is certain to turn heads with her transformative take on the celebrated singer. The supporting roles are also filled in with an impressive array of actors, most notably Trevante Rhodes as the deceptive yet charming federal agent Jimmy Fletcher and Garrett Hedlund as the hatred-spewing architect of the war on drugs, Harry Anslinger.
Andra Day’s unforgettable lead performance jazzes up “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”
By Lucas Mirabella
Running Time: 130 minutes