Arts

Singer Andra Day shines in the title role of so-so biopic The United States vs Billie Holiday

A celebrated singer (Andra Day) is ruthlessly targetted by the FBI under the auspices of the war on drugs in The United States vs Billie Holiday. Damon Smith reviews...

The United States Vs Billie Holiday: Andra Day as Billie Holiday
Damon Smith

THE UNITED STATES VS BILLIE HOLIDAY (15, 130 mins)

Drama/Romance/Musical. Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Miss Lawrence, Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan, Natasha Lyonne, Leslie Jordan. Director: Lee Daniels.

Released: February 27 (available exclusively on Sky Cinema)

A FEROCIOUS, uncompromising lead performance from Grammy-nominated R&B star Andra Day, making her feature film debut, almost redeems director Lee Daniels' scattershot biopic of trailblazing singer Billie Holiday.

Based on the book Chasing The Scream by journalist Johann Hari, Suzan-Lori Parks' script employs a cumbersome framing device to ricochet through 12 years of emotional upheaval, which culminated in Holiday's arrest for drug possession as she lay dying in the Metropolitan Hospital in New York.

Colour bleeds into monochrome and back again as Daniels incorporates archive footage from the era, which packs a heftier emotional punch than anything he stylishly evokes with production designer Daniel T Dorrance and costume designer Paolo Nieddu.

Indeed, a sobering postscript about the progress of the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, given greater impetus by the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, is an uncomfortable reminder of how little times have changed since Holiday first performed her defiant protest song Strange Fruit in 1939.

Day is a woman possessed, shedding clothes, inhibitions and the tiniest slivers of self-consciousness to explore Holiday's courage under fire and her self-destructive tendencies.

Her renditions of hits are delivered with piercing clarity, soaked in pain and despair.

Conversely, Trevante Rhodes is short-changed as the FBI agent, who spies on Holiday then becomes her lover.

The complex psychology of their volatile romance never comes into satisfying focus.

In 1957, Billie Holiday (Day) sits down with gossip columnist Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan).

They discuss Strange Fruit, which rages against the lynching of black Americans and is described by one government agent as "a musical starting gun for this so-called civil rights movement". She also traces her long-running feud with Harry J Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

The singer harks back 10 years to her performances at New York nightclub Cafe Society – motto: "The wrong place for the right people" – where she is introduced to ardent admirer Jimmy Fletcher (Rhodes). The handsome former GI has been secretly hired by Anslinger to infiltrate her inner circle.

Jimmy plays a pivotal role in Billie's one-year prison sentence for heroin possession.

The FBI mole regrets his actions and becomes her protector alongside confidantes Roslyn (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) and Miss Freddy (Miss Lawrence).

Alas, Billie cannot escape the vice-like grip of drug addiction and she rebuffs Jimmy to spare him a one-way ticket down the road to hell: "Gotta find you a nice girl, and that ain't me".

The United States Vs Billie Holiday is a glittering showcase for Day but, as a coherent and compelling portrait of flawed musical genius, Daniels' picture is off-key. Chronology is occasionally muddy and there is a frustrating lack of clarity to on-screen relationships including Billie's dalliances with screen star Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne).

Musical sequences are dazzling, fixating on Day's glossy red lips as she performs Solitude, Ain't Nobody's Business and All Of Me. The singer unabashedly gives all of herself to the role. Everything else, regrettably, comes up short.

Rating: 6/10

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