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‘The United States vs. Billie Holliday’ bears strange fruit

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What does it mean to take on the role of an icon?

It’s one of the fundamental challenges of a biopic – how to invoke the spirit and sensibility of a famous figure in a manner that avoids caricature. The best of these performances aren’t impressions or impersonations, but rather honest appraisals of the person being portrayed, built on actual character rather than a few plucked characteristics.

It’s worth noting that sometimes in biopics, the skill and subtlety of the central performance far outshines the rest of the film. The movie becomes less about the story and more about the person to whom the story is happening. That doesn’t mean the film is bad, necessarily – just that it doesn’t fully live up to the actor at its core.

Such is the case with “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” directed by Lee Daniels from a screenplay adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks from part of Johann Hari’s 2015 book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.” It’s a film with issues – tonal inconsistency, uneven direction, a somewhat meandering narrative and odd aesthetic choices.

And yet, many of the film’s sins are forgiven due to the sheer incandescence of Andra Day’s performance as the titular Billie Holiday. Even during stretches when the movie isn’t entirely working, Day NEVER stops working. She is absolutely magnetic onscreen, thrilling to watch. And when she starts to sing? Forget about it. Day papers over a lot of the film’s issues through sheer power of performance.

Billie Holiday is already a star when the film begins, one of the most popular jazz singers in the country, bringing together people of all colors and creeds through her devil-may-care attitude and her unworldly vocals. But despite her angelic voice, she’s got her share of demons as well. She gravitates toward unhealthy relationships with men who exploit and abuse her. She’s also a heroin addict; her struggles with the drug are an open secret in the music world and – unfortunately for her – beyond.

The federal government is not a fan of Ms. Holiday. Specifically, they want her to stop singing her song “Strange Fruit,” a haunting and ethereal song protesting the ongoing and unfettered lynchings of Black Americans. The feds believe that the song is too inflammatory, but there’s no way for them to punish Holiday for singing a song. They CAN punish her for her drug crimes, however, and that’s the plan set into motion by Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund, “Triple Frontier”), head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and unrepentant racist who will stop at nothing to take down Holiday.

That includes enlisting Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes, “Bird Box”) to go undercover and go after her. Fletcher works his way in, even as Holiday’s crew – including bandleader Lester (Tyler James Williams, “The Argument”) and assorted hangers-on like Miss Freddy (Miss Lawrence, TV’s “Star”) – express their misgivings. Alas, Fletcher winds up fulfilling his duty and getting Holiday arrested.

What follows is a decade of harassment and antagonism as Anslinger and his agents do anything and everything within their power – legal and otherwise – to destroy Holiday. The obvious bias and sheer unfairness of it all gets to Fletcher, who winds up defying the higher-ups even as he continues to press forward with the assignment he has been given.

And even as Holiday does what she does best – sing – she slowly descends into her own struggles, unsure of who she can trust and seeking solace in the prick of a needle. But in midcentury America, no matter how talented or famous she becomes, to too many, she’ll never be more than just another Black woman … one the government continues to relentlessly pursue.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is an interesting case. There’s a paint-by-numbers sense to much of it, a live-action Wikipedia article flavor that feels very straightforward. Yet there are also some odd stylistic flourishes from director Daniels – not all of which work well and including a few that straight-up fall flat. Some weird representational stuff and, when in doubt, throw in a performance sequence. Unsurprisingly, the conflicting vibes never really coalesce, leaving us with a film that, while engaging for stretches, simply doesn’t click.

And yet, when Andra Day is onscreen … none of it matters.

It really is a tremendous performance. It’s rare for an inexperienced actor to be so captivating. And yes, Day has a history as a performer, but as a singer – this marks her feature debut. And perhaps she benefits somewhat from her status as a relative unknown; audiences don’t know her in the context of other films, so it is easier for her to more fully represent this particular character. Be that as it may, it’s tough to dispute the sheer power and raw presence. Playing an icon like Billie Holiday comes with plenty of pressure, but it certainly appears as though Day bears it with ease.

(And the music – holy hell. Absolutely enchanting.)

As for the rest of the cast, they’re … fine. With one unfortunate exception, the ensemble puts forward perfectly cromulent work. Rhodes does his best with a character whose motivations remain frustratingly opaque; there’s not much rhyme nor reason to his actions. All things considered, he hangs in there. There are some other strong performances. Williams is good as Lester in limited action. Natasha Lyonne shows up for a couple of very good scenes as Tallulah Bankhead, while Leslie Jordan is a radio interviewer in a bit of a quasi-framing device. Alas, Garrett Hedlund doesn’t seem to really know what he should be doing or how he should be doing it. Playing the baddie in a movie like this is always tough, but Hedlund never manages to do much other than look grim and/or confused.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” can’t quite reach the heights achieved by the soaring voice of its star. But even with the film’s many issues, that phenomenal central performance makes it a movie experience worth having.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 01 March 2021 13:02

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