Review: 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' sings the blues

Andra Day comes alive as the jazz legend but the movie around her never does

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Perhaps a clean, tidy film about Billie Holiday's life wouldn't do the star justice. But "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" is a tawdry mess, and it's barely held together by the towering performance by Andra Day at its center. 

Day, in her first major role, is a powerhouse as the jazz legend in a brave, unapologetic performance that brings Holiday to life, scars, bruises and all. Yet almost nothing else in the film works, from its awkward framing device to its misguided hallucinatory sequences to its dopey portrayal of law enforcement agents, out to get Holiday because, as one says with a straight face early on, "this jazz music is the devil's work, that's why this Holiday woman has to be stopped." (Give. Me. A. Break.) 

Andra Day and Kevin Hanchard in "The United States vs. Billie Holiday."

That's Garrett Hedlund as Harry Anslinger, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics officer looking to take down Holiday because of the popularity and incendiary nature of "Strange Fruit," Holiday's 1939 single where she poetically describes lynchings in the South. Anslinger sends a young agent, Jimmy Fletcher ("Moonlight's" Trevante Rhodes) to infiltrate her camp and bring her down. Turns out Holiday's addiction to heroin does most of the heavy lifting for him. 

Director Lee Daniels, working from a script by Suzan-Lori Parks, isn't afraid to demystify Holiday, and Day's raw, honest, unguarded performance in the lead is commendable.

But the movie sorely lacks a central conflict or a narrative center to build around. Fletcher, who grows a conscience over his assignment to take down a beloved Black icon, has so many character swings in the movie it's difficult to keep them all straight. And the movie opens with and continually revisits an interview between Holiday and a fan (Leslie Jordan in a wig worthy of its own origin story) that repeatedly interrupts the film's momentum. 

Daniels shows the root of the pain that made Holiday's art so transcendent, and the struggle of the singer on-stage and off. But she could pull everything together when she needed to. "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" can't say the same. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'The United States vs. Billie Holiday'

GRADE: C

Not rated: language, nudity, sexual situations, drug use

Running time: 130 minutes

On Hulu