Every great musician is one of a kind, but the biographies of great musicians — or more precisely their biopics — end up looking pretty much alike. Childhood trauma is followed by success and its consequences, usually including addiction and love trouble. A chronicle of artistic triumph doubles as a cautionary tale, with ruin and redemption wrapped around each other. If all else fails, the soundtrack music offers occasional reminders of why we should care.
"The United States Vs. Billie Holiday," directed by Lee Daniels from a script by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, follows the standard template, with a few new elements added to the mix. Concentrating on the last dozen years of Holiday's life — she was 44 when she died of liver disease in 1959 — the movie flashes back to her grim childhood and expands to include many facets of her life and personality.
She suffers abuse at the hands of a series of men and relentless persecution from the government. The only lover who treats her well is also an undercover agent. We see Holiday as a heroin user, a devoted but not always reliable friend and an operatic figure of towering pain and sublime resilience. But not really as an artist.
Andra Day, who plays Holiday, is a canny and charismatic performer. The film's hectic narrative is punctuated with nightclub and concert-hall scenes that capture some of the singer's magnetism. Rather than lip-sync the numbers, Day sings them in a voice with some of Holiday's signature breathy rasp and delicate lilt and suggests her ability to move from whimsy to anguish and back in the space of a phrase.
And while Daniels and Day convey a plausible sense of Holiday's magnetism in front of an audience, "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday" shows little interest in the discipline and craft that made those indelible nightclub and concert-hall moments possible. The saxophonist Lester Young (Tyler James Williams) is a ubiquitous but peripheral presence, appearing more as a fellow addict than an indispensable creative partner. At one point, you hear him mutter something about "C sharp" but that is about all the musical talk the movie has time for.
Instead, the film focuses on episodes drawn from "Chasing the Scream," Johann Hari's journalistic history of the war on drugs. Holiday was a particular obsession of Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), an anti-narcotics zealot at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. In Hari's account, his hounding of her was motivated in no small part by racism, especially by his hatred of "Strange Fruit," the harrowing anti-lynching tone poem that Holiday first recorded in 1939.
There is real power in the story of a song so incendiary, so shockingly truthful, so likely to fan the flames of an entire civil rights movement that the American government sees it as a threat that must be stopped. And while that is part of the narrative — exploring the legacy of the legendary jazz singer and her haunting, unflinching song "Strange Fruit," about lynchings in the American South — it is a thread that is often lost among a portrait of Holiday's life and the world she inhabited.
But it is not, for all that, entirely unwatchable. Daniels' strength as a director lies less in his taste for histrionics and provocation than in his skill at observing quieter moments. He is a great choreographer of bodies at rest and casual conversations. The best parts of "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday" take place in dressing rooms, hotel suites and backstage lounges, during an impromptu softball game or a stroll in Central Park. With her friends — notably Roslyn (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), Miss Freddy (Miss Lawrence) and Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne) — Billie is witty, profane, generous and sometimes mean, but always something other than a victim or a symbol.
For all that the film often lingers on uncomfortable imagery — with historical footage of Black victims of white violence and depictions of forceful sexual encounters — there is a real purpose to the presentation and cinematography. One remarkable single-shot sequence sees Holiday leave her tour bus and accidentally stumble upon the horrifying aftermath of a lynching. She breaks down in the victim's house, staggers into a backstage room where she prepares to shoot up before eventually being shepherded onto a stage, where she finally performs "Strange Fruit" in full. In that central moment, Daniels knows exactly what he has, the camera remaining firmly on Day's face across the entire song. If only the rest of the film was this clear and incisive in its vision.
The film too often feels stilted and inert, jumping from incident to incident without really getting to the heart of Holiday herself. With an array of side-characters that drift in and out of the story, the film often feels more like a story about the world, the people, the forces around Holiday than Holiday herself. But even there, it cannot quite commit to the most interesting threads.
For all its zig-zagging attention span and clunky dialogue, what "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday" does is an arresting central performance from American singer Andra Day. Her Holiday is complex, constantly battling all manner of horrors the world throws her way, sometimes charming, other times impossible. And as a performer herself, Day is commanding in the on-stage sequences, her husky tone perfectly suited to inhabiting Holiday's smoky vocals.
In the title role, singer Andra Day inhabits Holiday with such intensity that she partially redeems the movie. But there is a major caveat: You will likely spend the whole running time wishing Day had been given a vehicle with more to say about Holiday than this one, the gist of which can be summed up as, "That poor junkie sure could sing."