Almost 50 years after “Lady Sings the Blues,” “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” revisits the singer’s career, through the lens of the feds hounding her. The result is a disjointed, oddly structured movie, which derives its high notes from Andra Day’s showstopping performance in the title role.
Despite that earlier biography and a recent documentary, “Billie,” two other movies come to mind that complement the key elements of this one: “Judas and the Black Messiah,” another story about the government’s ruthless harassment of African-Americans; and “Judy,” Renee Zellweger’s starring vehicle about the later life of Judy Garland.
Day, an accomplished singer and songwriter, gives Zellweger a run for her award-winning money, spectacularly capturing Holiday’s voice and phrasing, as well as the gradual toll that drug abuse took on her.
If only the rest of the movie, directed by Lee Daniels (“Precious”) from a script by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, were equal to its star.
Instead, “Billie Holiday” employs an odd framing device with no clear purpose — an interview with an impertinent fan (Leslie Jordan) — bouncing around Holiday’s biography, while largely focusing on her relationship with a Black undercover agent, Jimmy Fletcher (“Moonlight’s” Trevante Rhodes), assigned to bring her down.
Law enforcement’s interest in Holiday stemmed primarily from her song “Strange Fruit,” a haunting ballad about lynching in the South. Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) saw Holiday’s outspokenness as a threat and jazz in general as “the devil’s work,” seizing on anti-drug crusading as convenient cover to harass and imprison her. (The film is based on the book “Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.”)
As constructed, though, the film feels episodic, taking not-fully-explored detours to touch upon aspects of Holiday’s life, in a way that ill serves a good supporting cast. Those interludes include her romantic escapades with actress Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne, in what amounts to a cameo) and various men who exploited and profited off her talents, usually without supporting her defiant courage in playing her most controversy-inducing song, the risk be damned.
The sketchy nature of the drama elevates the music as “Billie Holiday’s” standout feature, sometimes with action playing out in video snippets as Holiday (that is, Day) croons.
Day has already garnered a Golden Globe nomination, and given the historic fondness for actors who do their own singing, Oscar recognition might not be far behind. Diana Ross, notably, was also nominated for “Lady” (Liza Minelli won that year for “Cabaret”), a testament in part to what a plum role Holiday’s larger-than-life presence provides.
Acquired by Hulu for a streaming debut, the movie leaves it to the closing script to bring together some of the key themes that Daniels’ develops, connecting this meticulously replicated past to the present. Thanks to the power of the subject matter and Day’s knockout performance, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is worth seeing. But the film is generally at its best when watching, and listening to, the lady sing.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” premieres Feb. 26 on Hulu.