There’s probably a brilliant movie hiding somewhere in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a new biopic on Hulu that dives into the tragic, tumultuous life of the legendary Billie Holiday, whose iconic vocal expression was (literally) instrumental in defining pop and jazz music throughout the 1930s and 50s. But despite its artistic flair and fittingly bombastic showstoppers sprinkled throughout, Billie Holiday leans far too heavily on the dour side of the performer’s career without ever fully realizing the bigger, more dignified picture of her life story.
And it’s a shame because Andra Day is an absolute goddess as Billie Holiday—a prolific singer in her own right, Day absolutely nails the iconic singer’s omni-dimensional range and distinct, hushed measure, both on and off the stage. It’s the kind of performance and casting that feels like destiny in how the stars clearly had to align for director Lee Daniels to get this challenging picture off the ground, and make no mistake, Billie Holiday is far from a film made with little-to-no effort.
Using the panache of a mid-80s glamor pic, Billie Holiday is shot and smoothed over with an almost glossy finish that pushes its dreamy sequences into almost ethereal territory. It helps to differentiate the film’s main timeline set in the late 1940s and early 50s from its narrative framing device, as we check in periodically with a 1957 interview conducted in the last years of Holiday’s life. Much like Holiday’s typical state of mind, the picture almost always feels just barely out of focus, like something isn’t quite right, but it’s still beautiful and captivating all the same. Ultimately, it’s a cinematic style that opts to be as improvisational as Holiday herself, but it’s nowhere near as capable in that regard, as the film can never quite settle into a discernible, enjoyable rhythm.
The main thrust of the story follows Holiday being repeatedly harassed and assailed by the FBI for performing the song “Strange Fruit,” a downbeat ballad which was intensely controversial for how it brought attention to the horrific, yet legal practice of lynching against Black people. Of course, the FBI know they can’t arrest Holiday solely for singing a song, so they instead decide to go after her drug use, as this marks the early days of the War on Drugs, a racially motivated ploy to stamp out provocative, unabashed Black culture.
Despite Day’s staggeringly committed performance as a woman who careens with her own career, the rest of the cast doesn’t quite match her tempo. Trevante Rhodes does what he can within a role that is written to be far too despicable and irredeemable to match his charisma, Garret Hedlund plays an oddly unassuming, unthreatening Harry J. Anslinger, the now infamous FBI agent who spearheaded the agency’s campaign against Holiday, and everyone else mostly drifts in and out of the film without having the time to leave much of an impression. Just when the film finds some time to explore Holiday’s bisexuality, it pivots wildly into a love affair with a drug dealer. While trying to enjoy Day’s pitch perfect rendition of a performance at Carnegie Hall, the film jumps back and forth between gratuitous shots of Holiday shooting up or being abused.
It’s a film that can never let itself revel in any of the joy of Holiday’s life, or at least the joy she brought to others without whiplashing into a flood of pain and suffering that ultimately dilutes its own point. At the very least, Billie Holiday is far from an unambitious or creatively bankrupt biopic, but it’s still a dull, even insufferable one. Holiday was certainly someone with an immensely complicated life, but as the film only barely touches upon, she was still beloved by millions despite the FBI’s best efforts. The biopic says plenty about Holiday’s hardships, but like Day at the center of this film, it puts all the onus on her to make any sense of it.