What makes Billie Holiday’s biopic so interesting is that her life would be worthy of a movie regardless of the fact that she is responsible for that song. This becomes both a gift and a curse for the movie though, as it is a film trying to serve two purposes and although it holds some fantastic acting, key set-pieces and an overall important aspect of American history, it struggles under it’s own weight at times.
The initial set-up throws us into the controversary surrounding Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. A song which describes and outlines the lynching of African Americans, it becomes clear that the USA are scared of the effect this song could have and are actively censoring Holiday on pain of arrest and black-listing. This in itself could have been the primary focus of the movie and watching the infuriating debates, blocks and restrictions placed on Holiday as she fights against a problem being ignored, or worse, actively encouraged, will anger and fascinate.
Holiday’s personal life was a struggle in itself though. A drug addict who surrounded herself with “yes-men,” disastrous relationships with manipulative and abusive men and a string of bad decisions, even when her seeming knight in shining armour appears courtesy of Trevante Rhodes’ Jimmy Fletcher. It is a tale we have seen many times before but intertwined amongst the story of the Government vs one of the biggest music stars of the time, it helps flesh out the story. The issues occur when the titular story becomes side-lined to tell the biographical aspects of the film and it feels like it loses it’s identity and purpose at points.
One constant throughout is the outstanding performance by Andra Day. This is a role which requires extreme heavy lifting and dramatic prowess and she embodies Billie Holiday perfectly. From the stage presence, general gravitas and then the most vulnerable of moments. She adds sympathy to a person who at points is difficult to sympathise with. Day also delivers the music note perfect. The way she mimics Holiday’s voice is difficult and impressive, the stand-out being when she eventually performs the most famous of songs, which is teased throughout.
Overall, The United States vs Billie Holiday tells two stories well but gets in its own way. In trying to flesh-out the tragic and eventful life of Holiday, it forgets the controversary surrounding her most famous song. This means the movie feels slightly directionless at points. Andra Day’s performance is flawless though and worth watching the movie for in itself.
Rating – 3.5
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