• Gareth Bradwick

The United States vs. Billie Holiday ★★

Lee Daniels

Starring Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Leslie Jordan

During awards season there usually lies at least one or two biopics hoping that they sweep up a gong on the night for a supporting or lead actor. And so here we find The United States vs. Billie Holiday with its eyes on the prize, but unfortunately there's not a lot going for this take on the 1930's icon.


We meet Billie Holiday (Andra Day) as she is interviewed about her career and subsequently we are swept back in time to watch Holiday lose herself to drugs and the people around her before her untimely death. Her life is a sad one but her music changed the jazz scene and the song at the heart of this film, Strange Fruit was her best-selling and most poignant record.


Much of what would make for a compelling biopic is missing here. Lee Daniels has made some great pictures including the harrowing story of Precious in 2009, but here he misses a beat...and not in a Jazz kind of way. The focus lies too much on her drug addiction, while although a big part of her life, clouds her triumphs and the joy of her blues. For the title of the film to be so provocative, there is a lack of fight between Holiday and The States; there is no sense of the effect she is having on the civil rights movement and so the involvement of the police comes secondary to her slip in to drug abuse.


While the story isn't quite where it should be, the production value and the aesthetic is on point, with a 1930's style that truly pops. Hues of red, black and yellow set the romance of the time and the whole look feels bedded in. Andra Day is also the true star of the film; she has gone in feet first as Holiday and is mesmerising from start to finish. The moments where we see her on stage are the most memorable. The Carnegie Hall concert feels classy and true, and when we get to hear Strange Fruit, Day's performance is given the chance to breathe on screen and it's wonderful.


Overall though, this is a disappointing biopic in which there aren't really any winners. A solid effort from its cast let down by a cloudy and misplaced script.


The United States vs. Billie Holiday available Friday the 26th February on NowTV & Sky Movies

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