Diana Ross may have been another generation’s Billie Holiday. But Andra Day stakes a fairly strong claim to the singer’s life in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”
In a focused period of time, director Lee Daniels digs into the campaign waged against her because of the music she sang.
Day gives us one of the most full-bodied Holiday interpretations and explains what really happened during those tumultuous last years. She’s incredibly adept at capturing Lady Day’s singing voice and even more willing to go where other actresses wouldn’t. She’s the reason to see this -- not the glossy, almost miniseries-like production that Daniels has crafted.
Holiday’s 1939 song, “Strange Fruit,” was seen as a threat to the government, largely because it wasn’t afraid to talk about lynching. The FBI looked for every way to silence her and, frequently, used those who were closest to her.
“United States” doesn’t give much depth to the FBI (Garrett Hedlund doesn’t have the heft to carry off Harry Anslinger, the leader of the FBI’s anti-drug efforts) or the reasons it thought one singer could have such an impact.
Its muscle, however, is all over the place. If Holiday isn’t getting roughed up, her friends are. The action is fairly brutal but the rest of the story – the friendships, the success, the music – is compelling.
Daniels hints at a relationship with Tallulah Bankhead, more than opens up about the diva inside the jazz singer, and puts the lust on full display, letting Day find what light the film’s writers haven’t provided.
Unlike Ross’ “Lady Sings the Blues,” this is a very earthy film, one that demonstrates how the music industry once operated. Even someone with Holiday’s credibility had to scramble.
Team in tow, Day flexes her muscle. When she becomes ill, chained to her hospital bed, Daniels reveals the kind of impact she had on those around her.
Da’Vine Joy Randolph is excellent as her close friend – and protector, Roslyn; Trevante Rhodes is just right as the man who could be the love of her life and the key to her downfall.
Day, however, is the hub around which this revolves. Without her strong performance, nothing else would work. She captures those onstage moments like she was there; she adds flourishes that make you believe Holiday was fully aware of everything around her. She’s a revelation – and the best reason to see the film.
While Suzan-Lori Parks’ screenplay offers enough heft, it doesn’t always have the personnel to carry it off. Using Leslie Jordan as an interviewer (and device) is an interesting choice, but it doesn’t stand up to what we see on stage.
There, Day shines and this “Billie Holiday” does, too.