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The United States vs. Billie Holiday – Movie Review

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The United States vs. Billie Holiday – Movie Review

Rating: C- (Below Average)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy eOne Films

Music biopics are incredibly common and many of them follow the same story beats, even when tackling singers and songwriters with vastly different life stories. It can be tricky to break away from that, but it’s especially disappointing when a film attempts to depart from the formula and ends up disappointing. Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks decide to focus on a specific period of Billie Holiday’s life in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, but the result feels strangely repetitive and we don’t get the needed insights. After the sluggish two hours and ten minutes, we’re left wondering why she was such an important figure.

The strongest aspect of the film comes from Andra Day’s lead performance as Holiday. She works hard to capture the mannerisms of the real person and deserves credit for the best scenes of the film, when she takes to the stage. The scenes of just Holiday singing into the microphone have the required power one would hope for. The film also succeeds in recreating the time period and the production team, from the costume to the hair and makeup department, clearly put in a lot of research so we could be transported back in time. It’s in what the film chooses to focus on elsewhere that it greatly disappoints.

It’s not a problem that the film skips Billie Holiday’s rise, because so many biopics decide to depict that and they all strangely follow the same narrative. However, we’re not given a sense of what made her so popular, especially when the film focuses mostly on one song. “Strange Fruit” is an important song in Billie Holiday’s life story, but the movie makes it seem like it’s her only notable song and that’s far from the truth. The film also devotes a lot of time to her drug use, so we get scene after scene of her heroin addiction, but the filmmakers don’t explore in detail what causes her to keep taking the stuff. A good chunk of screen time is devoted to her taking drugs with a little bit about the domestic abuse she suffered from one of her lovers and little else.

When Billie Holiday is sent to prison, she’s in and out in less than five minutes as the filmmakers immediately cut several months later. The film also barely touches on whatever positive traits she has, as she’s portrayed as a drug addicted diva with nothing likeable about her. It makes one wonder if The United States vs. Billie Holiday wants to celebrate and mourn what to happened her or tarnish her legacy. The pacing doesn’t help as this becomes a slow and unengaging biopic. There’s a surprising lack of energy, which only comes out during the musical performances.

Billie Holiday lived an unfortunate life full of troubles, but the way The United States vs. Billie Holiday tells it, nothing joyful or positive happened to her. For those unfamiliar with her work, they will wonder why she became such a big deal in her time, because the film seems largely disinterested in showing what made her popular and beloved. It’s a credit to Andra Day that there’s some interest in seeing what happens to her and that makes it all the more disappointing that we mostly just watch her shooting up heroin again and again and again.

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE