REVIEW – ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ lacks the genuine soul of its leading lady

Can a song incite a revolution? That’s the inherent question floating behind Lee Daniels‘ messy, bloated biopic, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, that seeks to capture the troubled life of a music legend but gets lost amongst Daniels’ penchant for extravagance and melodrama. The powerful story is there, especially for those unfamiliar with Holiday’s battles with drugs, men, and the FBI. But Daniels’ frustrating direction, chaotic pacing, and a ghastly screenplay derail what could have been a terrific film. Thankfully, this disappointing biopic is saved by the sensational Andra Day, who elevates every single frame with her revelatory debut screen performance.

Based on Johann Hari’s 2015 book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, The United States vs. Billie Holiday focuses on the singer’s crippling struggle with heroin and how she was targeted by the U.S. government for daring to sing the song that made her a star. Using the oldest framing device in the biopic handbook, the film begins with Holiday (Day) sitting down for an interview in 1957 with flamboyant journalist Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan) to recount major events from her life.

Flashing back to ten years earlier, Holiday is performing sold-out shows, shooting up heroin backstage, and terrifying the U.S government with her blunt determination to perform her controversial song “Strange Fruit,” the mournful track about the lynching of Black Americans in the South that launched her into stardom in 1939. This sets Holiday squarely in the crosshairs of Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund, in a thankless role), the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who is determined to bring the singer down.

“This jazz music is the devil’s work. That’s why this Holiday woman’s got to be stopped,” Anslinger barks at his team, including new recruit Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), who’s instructed to pose as a reporter to get close to Holiday and nab her on drug charges. When Fletcher falls under Holiday’s spell, he’s immediately conflicted between his duty and his burgeoning love for the singer.

If that last point sounds terribly familiar, it’s essentially the plot of Shaka King’s recently-released Judas and the Black Messiah. The inevitable comparisons won’t help Daniels’ film. While King offered a powerful introspection on how the U.S. government nefariously targeted a civil rights activist, Daniels focuses far too heavily on a sappy romantic subplot and Holiday’s drug use that ultimately get in the way of the film’s more important narrative thread.

When the film begins by highlighting the immense power of “Strange Fruit” and why it was deemed so noxiously dangerous by the FBI, you’d be remiss in thinking that’s where Daniels and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright-turned-screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks will lay their focus. But The United States vs. Billie Holiday frustratingly roams through so many detours in a series of rather pointless side plots that damage the potential power of this necessary story.

Parks’ screenplay meanders through Holiday’s toxic relationship with her abusive husband, Louis McKay (Rob Morgan), her infamous dalliance with actress Tallulah Bankhead (a woefully underused Natasha Lyonne), and her mistreatment of her entourage (including Tyler James Williams as her accompanist Lester Young, Da’Vine Joy Randolph as her confidante Rosyln, and Miss Lawrence as her stylist Miss Freddy). But with so much of Holiday’s life crammed into two hours, none of these threads is explored with the depth needed to allow an audience to form any connection with the material or the characters.

This is the most egregious example of a biopic attempting to do too much with too short a running time. It’s little more than a Wikipedia checklist of the latter years of Holiday’s biography that fails to offer any introspection or commentary on what we’re witnessing. The narrative is often boring and terribly repetitive, as it repeats the same scenes and issues over and over again, which is genuinely fatal to their possible impact. These moments in Holiday’s life are undoubtedly important, but Daniels presents them so generically and drowning in TV-movie-of-the-week melodrama that they simply fail to register with an audience.

The structure of this film is so chaotic and messy, it’s rather staggering it was written by one single screenwriter. Daniels and Parks get so distracted with portraying scene after scene of Holiday’s drug use (we get it…she’s a heroin addict) or her fractured relationships with men that they seemingly forget the central conceit of the film’s narrative. Without warning, the government’s nefarious war against Holiday suddenly returns to the spotlight for a few scenes before disappearing again. When they do focus on the narrative behind “Strange Fruit,” the film genuinely soars.

Daniels wisely waits until the third act to allow the infamous track to be performed in full, and the result is genuinely breathtaking, thanks to Day’s miraculous vocals that effortlessly capture Holiday’s iconic cadence. In a turn that could easily catapult the singer to an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, Day is simply marvellous. In just her first film role, Day is tasked with essentially carrying this entire picture, which she does with aplomb. Much like Renée Zellwegger’s Oscar-winning turn in 2019’s Judy, Day delivers a performance that never falls into caricature or impersonation. She captures Holiday’s persona like she’s lived in her skin all her life.

When Day is on stage, she is magnetic to watch, as she effortlessly channels Holiday’s impeccable stage presence and glorious vocals that showcase her stunning voice. The spectacular period costume designs of Paolo Nieddu complete Day’s transformation into the iconic star. But this is so much more than just a vehicle for Day’s gorgeous singing ability. In her debut film, Day declares she has a bright future as an actor. While the screenplay may not do her any favours, Day elevates Holiday beyond the page. When Holiday is off-stage, Day captures the complexities of such a damaged soul in an empathetic performance that makes this insufferable biopic worth the effort.

Day’s chemistry with Rhodes is wonderful and you truly wish Daniels had chosen to solely focus on their complicated relationship. Likewise with Lyonne’s Bankhead, who sporadically drops into the narrative to steal focus and add some much-needed flavour to the bland screenplay. But Daniels frustratingly shies away from exploring Holiday’s bisexuality in any great depth, making you wonder why Bankhead was even included in this film at all. There’s clearly so much more to Holiday than this film seems interesting in exploring.

By the time The United States vs. Billie Holiday reaches its inevitably tragic conclusion, it’s too late to save the film from Daniels’ arduous direction and Parkes’ flat screenplay. As a film centred on a musician known for baring her heart on stage, it’s startling to find this biopic lacks the genuine soul of its leading lady. While Day’s astonishingly good performance is worth the price of admission, everything surrounding it proves to be a tedious slog to endure. The potential was there, but the end result is one of the most disappointing films of the season.

Distributor: Hulu
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
Director: Lee Daniels
Producers: Lee Daniels, Jordan Fudge, Joe Roth, Jeff Kirschenbaum, Pamela Oas Williams, Tucker Tooley
Screenplay: Suzan-Lori Parks
Cinematography: Andrew Dunn
Production Design: Daniel T. Dorrance
Costume Design: Paolo Nieddu
Editor:  Jay Rabinowitz
Music: Kris Bowers

Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Date: 26th February 2021 (U.S.), 29th April 2021 (Australia)