Lee Daniels’ weary film has no idea how to approach its own story and only comes to life when actor Trevante Rhodes is on screen
A musical biopic that arrives not only in the shadow of James Erskine’s superlative documentary Billie, but a mere few months after its release, Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a film that fails to match up to both that work or the acclaimed jazz singer of its title. At once doing too much and too little, it leaves us with little insight into either Holiday the person or Holiday the artist.
Set between 1947 and 1957, Billie Holiday tackles a fascinating piece of history when Holiday (played by singer Andra Day) was targeted by the US government for her refusal to stop singing “Strange Fruit” at her concerts, reminding the country of the hideous violence meted out on black people by lynch mobs. Targeting her through her drug dependency, the state had an entire federal division dedicated to damaging her, a division headed up by virulent, dyed-in-the-wool racist Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), but their undercover agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) ended up falling in love with Holiday.
It’s a real stranger-than-fiction story, but Daniels and writer Suzan-Lori Parks never seem sure of how to tell it. Billie Holiday is a busy, even chaotic, film, Holiday and Fletcher’s star-crossed romance intercut with the federal sting operations, Holiday’s various horribly abusive husbands, her loyal but resentful band, and her addiction all constantly vying for attention and drowning each other in white noise in the process.
With so many angles to approach from, none of them get the time they need to develop into something genuinely affecting, while restless editing and pointlessly flashy visual tics simply add to the mayhem. Things only seem to slow down to give space for obvious “Biopic Trailer Lines,” which are mired in the sort of cliches that Walk Hard spoofed so brilliantly way back in 2007.
It's a great shame, because had the focus been tighter on the unpredictable and morally dubious agent-suspect romance, there could have been an excellent film here. Day is doing more of a Holiday impression than she is giving a real, layered performance, but it’s a good one and she lights up whenever Holiday gets on stage to perform. Rhodes, meanwhile, is just fantastic. Whenever he’s on screen the jumbled pacing and thin character work of the script falls away, his megawatt charm helping you understand just how Fletcher managed to befriend Holiday and her inner circle despite them knowing his police allegiances.
At 130 weary minutes, The United States vs. Billie Holiday never quite finds the right rhythm and ends up feeling like an endless parade of loosely connected vignettes that only really pop whenever Rhodes is on screen. He does sterling work elevating the movie, but one performance can only take you so far when the basic building blocks of the storytelling are so flawed.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is available on Sky from 27 February.Where to watch