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"THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY"
(2021) (Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes) (Not Rated)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A look at the life and times of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday and her battles with personal demons as well as the U.S. government.
PLOT:

With the story framed by an interview after the fact, we see Billie Holiday (ANDRA DAY) after she's already a legendary jazz singer, friends with actress Tallulah Bankhead (NATASHA LYONNE), and married to James Monroe (ERIK LaRAY HARVEY). With an entourage consisting of the likes of Miss Freddy (MISS LAWRENCE) and Roslyn (Da'VINE JOY RANDOLPH) among others, a manager in Joe Glaser (DUSAN DUKIC), and a steady supply of heroin from Joe Guy (MELVIN GREGG), Billie has drawn the interest of two men.

One is Army veteran Jimmy Fletcher (TREVANTE RHODES) who at first seems like a star-struck fan but quickly maneuvers his way into her life. The other is Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Harry J. Anslinger (GARRETT HEDLUND) who's certain black people and jazz music will be the downfall of American society. Accordingly, he sets out to destroy her, focusing on her drug habit. As the years pass, Billie must contend with them as well as abusive relationships with men such as Louis McKay (ROB MORGAN) and John Levy (TONE BELL).

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10

With most things in life, you can't achieve success by yourself in a vacuum. Instead, you need others to be collaborating and contributing at high levels to get there. For instance, you can have a great quarterback, but if the rest of the team stinks, you'll never make it to the Super Bowl.

A guitar virtuoso might deliver amazing solos or riffs, but won't achieve much if the lead singer is constantly off-key. And an actor can give an amazing performance, but if the story is muddled and the direction is a mess, their movie is going to be dinged by critics and viewers alike.

Such is the case with "The United States vs. Billie Holiday," a standard, tortured soul biopic featuring a standout debut performance by Andra Day, but one that's undermined by a lack of focus in the storytelling and the lack of cohesive directorial style. While the lead actress will get her accolades (as might the costuming and production design), the pic is otherwise forgettable.

Which is a shame since there's obviously lots of potential present. For those not familiar with the title character, Holiday was a star jazz singer from the 1930s through the 1950s who was besieged not only by her personal demons and bad behavior, but also by racists in the U.S. government who believed one of her songs -- "Strange Fruit," a haunting ode to the lynching of black people -- was a threat to the American (read: white) way of life.

Using her well-known drug habit against her, they did nearly everything in their power to ruin her and her perceived power and influence, ultimately helping lead to her far too early passing at the age of just forty-four.

Director Lee Daniels -- working from a script by Suzan-Lori Parks (based on "Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs" by Johann Hari)-- starts the proceedings where an older white interviewer questions Holiday about the past, and it's to there that the story then heads. At that point, the singer is already quite popular, married to her first husband (Erik LaRay Harvey), and her "dangerous" song has long since been released. Two men then focus their attention on her, seemingly with different intentions, at least until additional details are revealed.

One, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), is a retired military man who initially seems like a big fan of the singer and then infiltrates his way into her life. The other, Harry J. Anslinger (written and then played like a cartoon villain by Garrett Hedlund), has deemed "n*ggers" and jazz music as threats to society and wants to destroy her. It turns out the former is working for the latter as one of only a handful of black agents at the time, something his mother doesn't like, and that makes another fellow black fed wonder what they're doing to their people.

If that sounds somewhat familiar, it's because the recently released "Judas and the Black Messiah" covers a lot of the same thematic ground (undercover person of color working for white feds to bring down an alleged troublemaker person of color), albeit in a more cohesive, compelling, and engrossingly if it's going to make you mad sort of way.

Day's performance -- both on the stage belting out the hits and off dealing with her personal demons -- mitigates some of that, but the focus isn't always on her and instead shifts away to the various men who are no good to her, most of which are severely underdeveloped. It doesn't help that Daniels -- who previously helmed "Precious" and "The Butler" -- deploys a multitude of directorial approaches and flourishes that end up as distractions rather than helpful elements to strengthen the story and/or heighten viewer engagement.

Proving that talent alone can't ensure success if the rest of one's life is a mess -- and that a terrific lead performance can't make a film succeed if other parts don't match or exceed that work -- "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" ends up barely saved by Day's presence. It rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed February 2, 2021 / Posted February 26, 2021


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