Sunday, May 1, 2022

The United States vs. Billie Holliday

Movie Name:
The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Lee Daniels
Starring: Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Natasha Lyonne, Leslie Jordan, Miss Lawrence, Dusan Dukic, Erik LaRay Harvey, Kate MacLellan, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Kwasi Songui, Adriane Lenox, Letitia Brookes, Tyler James Williams, Jeff Corbett
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
"The United States vs. Billie Holiday" is another interpretation on the life of singer Billie Holiday, with one of the most iconic ones being "Lady Sings the Blues", the 1972 film directed by Sidney J. Furie, with a central performance by Diana Ross. This time around the film focuses on Holiday's career around 1947, when people close to Holiday are trying to get her to cut the song Strange Fruit from her set list. The FBI considers her a threat, and is intent on stopping her focusing on her issues with substance abuse. An undercover FBI agent by the name of Jimmy Fletcher witnesses her doing drugs, and she gets arrested for drug use and possession. After being released, Holiday manages to do some shows, and eventually embarks on a relationship with Fletcher, even though most of her previous relationships have always been met with abuse and violence (and peppered with drugs). While initially suspicious of him, she opens up and falls in love. However she eventually sabotages the relationship and decides to go back to NY. She embarks on another relationship but is eventually reunited with Fletcher, at the same time some health issues flare up.
Lee Daniels of course made a name for himself with the drama "Precious" which premiered in 2009 to an array of accolades and good reviews. While his subsequent films haven't been met with such praise, he was able to be immensely successful with the show "Empire" which lasted for 6 seasons, the last one having just ended in 2020. The life of charismatic singer Billie Holiday is one that is ripe for a powerful drama, since she experienced such hardship and tribulations, on top of being such a phenomenal (and successful) talent. However this film and Lee Daniels take on this subject matter is very akin to an R-rated biopic of the week, with very little being illustrated in terms of what propelled Ms. Holiday or for that matter, the supporting characters around her. As she and Jimmy Fletcher become entangled in a relationship, nothing much is ever clarified about who he is, what his motivations are, aside from the assignment he is given. As a character, much like many of the supporting ones populating this film, he and all of this library of eclectic supporting players, are all very unidimensional, serving the purpose alone of providing some color for whatever Holiday is going through. Many stereotypes waltz through this film, including the supportingly eclectic jazz players, the villainous law enforcement authorities, the treatment of drug addiction, to name but a few. If indeed the point to this story was to humanize the trials and tribulations of such a talented woman, why not focus on her relationships, and how they were impacted by all these events, allowing for those characters and her in particular to be fully brought to life. As it is, it never really gives notion of the impact of her talent, nor the relationships she carved out, or even the hardships she had go to through. The cast tries its best to bring these characters to life, but Trevante Rhodes manages to be the most memorable performer, since with as little as he has to work with, he actually creates a sense of journey with his character, with his progressive fascination with what he witnesses and how he finally falls in love with Billie Holiday. The cinematography from Andrew Dunn is stellar as is the costume design from Paolo Nieddu. A missed opportunity.