As a musician and performer, Andra Day deserves far more attention than she’s yet to receive. Her 2015 debut album, Cheers to the Fall, introduced her as a force to be reckoned with, mainly thanks to a powerful, unique and evocative voice setting her far apart from her contemporaries. She’s released several singles since then (including some Christmas music) and has been featured on dozens of film and television soundtracks. Now, she takes center stage as American musical icon Billie Holiday in Lee Daniel’s The United States v. Billie Holiday, delivering a performance that, in any other vehicle besides this one, would be heralded as one of the best of the year. Unfortunately, even her uncanny ability to channel not only Holiday’s raspy, aching voice but her inherent defiance and confidence can’t outshine what is ultimately a messy, confused chronicle of the star’s traumas, career struggles and relationship dramas.
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks (adapted from a book by Johann Hari), Daniels appears to be attempting to highlight Holiday’s ongoing struggle with the United States government and the intelligence agencies intent on sidelining her and the dark, brutal truths she sang about in songs like “Strange Fruit.” Spanning decades of her career, the film instead plays like a disconnected series of incidents that never quite manage to create a fully realized narrative of Holiday’s complicated life. There’s even a cumbersome flashback device bookending the film, Holiday being interviewed by a radio DJ named Reginald Lord Divine (Leslie Jordan), a flamboyant personality who’s not shy about asking the chanteuse about her darkest days, from her heroin addiction to run-ins with the government and more. And it only gets worse from there, as the film bounces from moment to moment in Holiday’s life, often with nothing more than a brief on-screen note that we’re now two or three months on from just the scene before. More than once, the progression of time becomes so muddled that it’s nearly impossible to know exactly where we are in Holiday’s long, slow decline.
Attempts to capture long spans of any life on film usually fail, as the Herculean feat of saying so much in the typical movie runtime is one few filmmakers can accomplish. Instead, biopics that focus on a particular moment in an icon’s life or career tend to fare better, able to dig deep into their subject at a certain crossroads, rather than spread their attention out thin across the decades. Try as Day might, even her impressive performance (and truly, the moments when it’s Day on stage as Holiday are hands-down the most compelling of the film) can’t salvage the mess of a plot Daniels has been handed in this overwrought, over-packed script. Just as one begins to forge any sort of connection to Holiday and all she’s going through, the film jerks us out of the moment to check in with the government agencies intent on bringing her down (a scene where these G-men discuss what to do like some sort of bureaucratic round-table is particularly painful).
Day is supported admirably by a cast that also does their best to make lemonade out of these lemons, including Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight) as a fellow addict, a contentious lover and ultimately a rat who would betray her to the authorities. Natasha Lyonne, typically a magnet of sheer charisma in anything she appears in, is wasted in what amounts to a cameo as Tallulah Bankhead, an actress and contemporary of Holiday’s with whom she was rumored to have a romantic affair. (Make that movie, Daniels!) The rest of the ensemble swirls around Holiday at various stages in her life, propping her up when she needs the support, fussing over her when she’s down on herself and struggling to keep her sober long enough to get back on stage. They’re there, for example, when she’s arrested for possession of heroin, and they watch as she’s sent to jail, a phase of her life that surely changed her. But as it’s just one more stop along the traumatic, heartbreaking road Daniels is intent on dragging us down, it—like so many others in the film—never registers as more than static in a film that can’t seem to hone in on a specific signal.
Billie Holiday died at just 44 years old, her system shutting down after years of drug use and heavy drinking; in the hospital, the government continued to look for ways to shut her down, including raiding the room and arresting her as she lay dying. It’s a tragic and sad end for a troubled woman who faced more than her fair share of traumas over her short life. Unfortunately, without the opportunity to really get to know her in the film’s first two hours, its final moments fail to be as powerful as they could be. Holiday deserves to have her story told and told well; hopefully she will someday.
The United States v. Billie Holiday is now streaming on Hulu.
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