Sometimes you just have to make people feel the music. Andra Day does that and more in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. The performance scenes are knock your socks off good. And luckily there are plenty of them.
But it’s so hard to channel an entire life into a two-hour biography. What to leave on the cutting room floor, what to focus on, what to gloss over. In the hands of Lee Daniels, Billie Holiday’s life is overcooked and as fleeting as smoke from a cigarette in the wind at the same time, hideously raw and beautiful, in your face while being barely there. Daniels attempts to weave a dramatic thread through the controversy surrounding her public performances of “Strange Fruit” – a hauntingly poetic ballad about the brutalities of lynching – shown here as both an act of defiance against the powers that be and a heartbreaking channeling of past traumas. But, man, that thread gets twisted.
Billie Holliday had a horrific childhood and tumultuous life battling racism, drug addiction and a revolving door of vile men (both black and white) who used her or tried to take her down. Somehow, gifted with an obviously raw talent, she rose up through it all and left us with an unforgettable body of work. Daniels shows us that talent in action and her close circle of confidantes who tried to protect her, but we never get a sense of how she did it. He wallows in the traumas and the destructive self-medications, which certainly warrant seeing the light of day no matter how uncomfortable they make us, but he never shows us the crack of light outside of that spotlight. How did she get there…how did she find the spotlight in the first place? Are we to assume the spotlight simply found her?
Under a suffocating pall of trauma, The United States vs. Billie Holiday has moments of electrifying brilliance, but so much of it was a mess…just like her life, maybe? Depressing. Sobering. Tragic. Andra Day is astounding, and the nightmarishly shrieking buildup to the “Strange Fruit” performance at the film’s centerpiece is painfully haunting. In the end, we all walk away bruised.