Friday, February 26, 2021

The United States vs. Billie Holiday: a Late Contender

These days, jazz is probably a little too dependent on the support of elite cultural institutions. It has its own constituent organization within the Lincoln Center and it is taught at many of the finest universities (like Julliard and Berklee). Wouldn’t Harry Anslinger, the notorious jazz-hating Narc, be surprised. He made of point of targeting jazz musicians in his war on drugs, settling on Billie Holiday as his prime focus. That aspect of Holiday’s tragic story comes to the fore in Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday, based on Johan Hari’s nonfiction book (primarily this excerpt here), which premieres today on Hulu.

Holiday had a difficult life that she made even more painful through her own decisions. While most jazz musicians closed ranks around each other, largely stymying Anslinger’s prosecution/persecution attempts as the chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (a precursor to the DEA), Holiday perversely kept getting involved with the wrong sort of men, who were only too willing to betray her. Her determination to keep singing the searing anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” further inspired Anslinger’s wrath. Weirdly, Holiday defiantly performed it much more frequently than Suzan-Lori Parks’ screenplay give her credit for. However, Daniels is quite shrewd to hold off showing her characteristically devastating performances until roughly midway through.

Essentially, the film starts with Holiday well into her post-Basie fame, periodically flashing-back to scenes from her harrowing early years in Baltimore. We understand why she continues to fall into cycles of abuse, choosing the wrong men over and over. Jimmy Fletcher was recruited to be one of them, but the undercover agent will fall in love with Holiday, even while he builds a case against her. At least when he collars Holiday it is a legitimate bust, but he still regrets it.

Daniels and Parks will please real jazz fans because they also give considerable screen time to her great platonic love, tenor legend Lester “Pres” Young. Tyler James Williams is terrific as Pres, playing him in a more forceful and engaged manner than he is often presented (many thanks for that). Yet, it seems like a lost opportunity not to depict their final bittersweet reunion on the classic
Sound of Jazz broadcast. Instead, US VS leaves them on bad terms.

Regardless, Andra Day lives up to the awards hype as Lady Day, especially in her scenes opposite Williams and Trevante Rhodes, who fully conveys the depth and extent of Fletcher’s conflicting angst, guilt, regret, and lust. The natural inflections and intonations of Day’s voice are almost an eerie dead ringer for Holiday’s—so much so older jazz fans might assume it is a deliberate imitation. Dramatically, she gives a raw and fearless performance, on both physical and emotional levels.

Unfortunately, Garrett Hedlund is definitely the weak link of the film. Daniels unambiguously places him in the center of a racist government conspiracy, not without justification. Yet, his Anslinger lacks the subtlety to be a realistically compelling character or the flamboyant scenery chewing to be a memorable villain. He is just too bland and boring.

Of course, the music sounds great. Day perfectly channels Lady Day on favorite standards like “Solitude,” “All of Me,” “I Cried for You,” “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” “God Bless the Child” and of course, “Strange Fruit.” Plus, fans should also look out for Patience Higgins in one of the best sounding unsuccessful saxophone audition you will ever hear. Kris Bowers’ score seems to take more inspiration from Holiday’s late sessions arranged by Ray Ellis rather than her more swinging Basie years, but that fits the fatalistic vibe Daniels intended. (However, the original tune, “Tigress & Tweed” really doesn’t sound era-appropriate.)

Like Clint Eastwood’s
Bird, US VS is often frustrating, because it frankly depicts the demons that plagued a great artist. They both should have lived much longer, leaving behind an even greater body of work. Sadly, that is how it was. Despite a few shortcomings, Daniels’ film does much better by its iconic subject than previous biopics (that shall remain nameless). Recommended for her jazz and crossover fans, The United States vs. Billie Holiday starts streaming today (2/26) on Hulu.