The United States vs. Billie Holiday
(Director Lee Daniels, starring Andra Day. Hulu/ Sky Movies. 137 mins. Review by John Bungey)
A visceral account of the hounding of the singer by the FBI features an outstanding lead performance
In the roll-call of great artists dealt a lousy hand by life, jazz has a good few entrants. Billie Holiday, however, trumps them all – horrific childhood, Jim Crow-era racism, heroin addiction, a string of swindlers and conmen in her private life, FBI persecution and a premature death. It’s a leaden weight of tragedy that has overshadowed her artistry. She rivals, lest we forget, Sinatra as the finest singer of jazz, an artist who altered permanently how the music was interpreted.
Lee Daniels, the latest film director attracted to her story (subject of some 40 books), puts Holiday’s decision to start performing Strange Fruit in 1939 at the heart of his movie. The song’s howl of rage at the lynching of blacks in the South is seen by the authorities, already trying to arrest her for drug use, as a rallying call for “the so-called Civil Rights movement”. A nightclub chanteuse singing about “the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh” can’t be tolerated. Her nemesis is Harry Anslinger, boss of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a vitriolic racist and jazz hater (who apparently had once dreamt of bringing down Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong too). In a plot inspired by Johann Hari’s 2015 non-fiction book on the drugs war, Chasing the Scream, Anslinger tasks a lowly black FBI operative, Jimmy Fletcher, with entrapping Holiday. In most Holiday biographies Fletcher is a pretty peripheral figure but here, in a The Crown-style re-imagining, Fletcher takes centre stage, becoming Holiday’s lover – a flawed yet somehow decent man working for her enemies. “It’s complicated,” he says as the script tries to square all this.
The American singer Andra Day (above) lost 40lb and began smoking and drinking to become Billie Holiday – and she’s terrific. It may be her first acting job but an Oscar nomination beckons. Rarely without a glass or a cigarette, she scowls, swears and defies the cheating menfolk all about, a mix of tough and vulnerable, desperately trying to keep her career, health and sanity on track. What she needs is rehab, what she gets is jail. The re-created stage performances are high points. Day is the epitome of glamour with blood-red lipstick, gardenias in the hair. Unlike Diana Ross’s glossy performances in Lady Sings the Blues in 1972, where scant effort was made to mimic Holiday, Day sounds authentic. Like Holiday, she floats through lines a fraction behind the beat, with that rasp at the edge of her voice. We hear God Bless the Child, All of Me, Lover Man, Ain’t Nobody’s Business (with its grim lyric, smilingly sung: “I swear I won’t call no copper, if I’m beat up by my papa”). A full rendition of Strange Fruit comes two thirds of the way through and it’s spine-tingling.
That said, at two hours 17 minutes, the film is too long and at times disjointed. The set-pieces are potent – the shows, the moment when Holiday witnesses the aftermath of a lynching (OK, it didn’t happen in real life), the moment when a black reporter asks her why she can’t set an example to her race “like Ella Fitzgerald and Marian Anderson”. However, a sidestep into her relationship with Tallulah Bankhead doesn’t add much and there’s the hero/villain Fletcher conundrum. In one vivid scene Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) tries heroin for the first time and imagines himself being led through Holiday’s childhood bordello home, but it jars with the straightforward, often visceral, storytelling style around it. Daniels doesn’t stint on punches, sex or syringes.
Seek the film out though; Andra Day alone makes it worth your time. And then dig out some Holiday records from earlier years – 1930s songs with Duke Ellington’s sidemen – and remind yourself that there was joy in her story too.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is on Sky Cinema from February 27