Released: 29th April
Seen: 11th July
As I mentioned in my Judas and the Black Messiah review there were 2 films that were part of the major categories of this year’s Oscars that I didn’t get a chance to see in time. Judas was possibly the one I had the most chance of seeing, since it appeared in Sydney a month before the ceremony (but that’d involve a train ride into, what is still an epicenter of Covid cases). The one that would prove to be impossible to view in time was The United States vs. Billie Holiday… a film released on Hulu in the US back in February, because nothing says “thing that should be impossible to view legally” like a film put on a streaming platform. Anyway, it finally became available down here so I watched it and… well, I get why the only point of awards contention was the lead performance.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday takes place shortly after the release of Billie Holiday’s (Andra Day) biggest hit song Strange Fruit, a song that would get her arrested should she perform it to the wrong crowd. While going from town to town performing, Billie falls further and further into a heavy drug addiction which the federal government uses to lock her up in an attempt to silence her… but they only lock her up for a single year and it doesn’t really stop her. The United States vs. Billie Holiday alternately goes between her addiction, her relationship with FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) and her touring schedule… in a remarkably similar way to every other biopic about any musician who ever touched a drug in their life.
For as much as I desperately want to like The United States vs. Billie Holiday, it’s a little hard when the script and film making is so scattershot that it becomes hard to even follow basic plotlines as they go on… this could possibly be because The United States vs. Billie Holiday is an adaptation of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs… a book about the drug war that mentioned Billie Holiday, but not an actual book about her. Meaning that it’s a lot more focussed on the drug story than on the story about Billie Holiday trying to perform Strange Fruit. It certainly touches on the difficulty that song caused her, there are a few scenes here and there that remind us how powerful that song was but it’s almost an afterthought to the drugs.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday also just never feels accurate, something about the tone makes it feel even more fictionalised than most biopics. Sure, no biopic is going to be perfectly honest about the subject matter but this one just has some weird changes of history, like her performance at Carnegie Hall is presented with her unable to perform Strange Fruit that night… except, in reality, Billie closed that show with Strange Fruit and a prop in the movie shows it on the setlist. It’s a weird lie told to try and further this story that the film is trying to tell,and failing at it. How much of this film is even based on reality? I can’t be sure, but it being based on a book about the drug war and not about Billie makes me wonder if they did even basic research to check this stuff.
It’s also just uninteresting for the most part, the titular court cases against Billie Holiday are off screen and barely even a factor. Her prison time is a montage and it just doesn’t work because we have to go through the standard biopic rhythms where she performs a song, does a drug, then does another song while on another drug. It’s tiring and doesn’t really do much to help make this story interesting.
Even on a visual level The United States vs. Billie Holiday just doesn’t work, having this strange habit of randomly putting on a filter to age the footage for a few shots. It never feels like a stylistic choice to show a change in time period, it feels like the editor slipped and accidentally applied the black and white filter over some footage and no one bothered to correct it. If you’re going to give me stylism, then goddamn give me stylism but don’t hint at it and then run away like a coward.
The only thing in The United States vs. Billie Holiday that’s working, and easily THE reason to see it if you haven’t caught up with it yet is that performance by Andra Day that won her a Golden Globe and made her a serious contender for the Oscar. Her performance is perfection, a triumph in every way. She gives you Billie’s heart and soul, every time she sings it’s like you’re being blessed by God with the gift of hearing her. It’s incredible, the kind of performance that not only makes careers but defines them. She makes every moment she’s on screen electrifying, you can’t look away from her… and you don’t want to because the second she leaves the screen you remember that you’re just watching an average biopic with a spectacular lead.
I wanted nothing more than to love The United States vs Billie Holiday, her story is something that should be told. Hell, the story of Strange Fruit as a song should be told forever, that song is a piece of history and is meant to be a rallying cry against injustice. The lynching that inspired that song still goes on today because the US congress seems absolutely fine with not passing specific laws against it, THAT’S the story you should be talking about. But no, no let’s have another biopic about a famous celebrity on heroin that inevitably drags them down and kills them while putting one of the most important songs in history in there occasionally as a treat… that’s a film I wanna see. Maybe Andra’s next film will match her talent, cos this one doesn’t feel like it came close to what she can offer.