Andra Day sings her heart out as Billie Holiday.
The first film to tell singer Billie Holiday’s story was “Lady Sings the Blues” in 1972, starring Diana Ross as Lady Day, Billy Dee Williams as her mob enforcer husband Louis McKay, and the late Richard Pryor as the man on the Piano (“Piano Man”). This one represented her life as a singer and drug addict. Ross was profoundly excellent in the ways she resurrected the singer with her voice and passion, and that’s what made the biopic so likable.
Now, we have Andra Day portraying her in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday, ” directed by Lee Daniels (in his first feature since “The Butler”) and now released on Hulu. She’s had some small acting roles in “Cars 3” and “Marshall,” both released in 2017, so this role would be her first major one. Day ignites flames when she releases a fiery anger under the influence of drugs, and when she sings her heart out on stage. Daniels connects with her tremendously well.
The opening credits explain how a bill about banning the lynching of African-Americans didn’t pass, but Billie’s hit song “Strange Fruit” was a hit in its representation of it. It also begins with journalist Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan) excited to interview Billie about her life. In regards to the controversial song, we have a federal agent named Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) posing as a soldier, and FBI agent Harry Aslinger (Garret Hedlund) both tracking her down, especially since she’s a junkie. We find her on trial, in prison, and on tour in various stages in her life. Despite Fletcher’s mission, he manages to defend her when she gets framed for possession of opium, and now, he must go on tour with her.
Both these versions are somewhat disorganized with too much happening in the stories for me to completely follow. But what makes both version work is when they allow such talented singers to resurrect Billie Holiday, and they’re both worthy of the R-rating, because of the sex and drugs that she engages in. And they both have, at least one or two supporting characters to support the singer. In this version, Rhodes provides a vibrant and sentimental performance in the ways he thrives on the turmoil, while Rob Morgan delivers the goods in a small role as McKay.
One of the most haunting turmoils in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is when they stop the bus, and Billie comes across a dead African-American woman hung by the neck down with her children crying. There was also a similar scene in “Lady Sings the Blues,” but Daniels presents it here in a more dramatic and horrifying scope. And both he and cinematographer Andrew Dunn (who’s worked with Daniels on “Precious” and “The Butler”) presents that scene and all the shots of the heroin, police, and sex with a strong and riveting perspective.
I can’t call it a masterpiece because of the way its plot squeezes in too much information, but there are informative and profoundly-acted moments. And it’s mostly because of Day’s dazzling performance (and so far, she’s nominated two Golden Globes for Best Actress and Best Original Song: “Tigress & Tweed”) that I’m recommending this biopic.
Streaming on Hulu