When talking about musical history a lot of people consider Elvis Presley to be the first real rock star. You could argue that title should be given to Billie Holiday though. Holiday was a rock star before rock was even thing. As a performer Holiday packed out clubs and had the paparazzi digging into her personal life a long time before Elvis ever put on his blue-suede shoes. And while many people sadly don’t know the life that Holiday had to endure that it all brought out into the light with director Lee Daniels’ (The Paperboy) brand new film The United States vs Billie Holliday.
The Oscar nominated film tells the story of Holiday (Andra Day – Marshall) from her early days as a club singer and then shows how her song about black rights, Strange Fruit, made her a target for the FBI. The film chronicles how Holiday is used and abused by many of the men in her life and how her drug addiction leads to her being targeted by law-enforcement officers including Harry Aslinger (Garrett Hedlund – TRON: Legacy) and Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes – Moonlight).
While Aslinger is prepared to do anything to bring down Holiday, including making public her relationship with Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne – American Pie), Fletcher finds himself becoming romantically attracted to Holiday as he gets closer to her, causing friction between everybody involved with the case.
While many of these biopic films about famous musicians often show the artist as a complete saint, The United States vs Billie Holiday certainly doesn’t. With the aid of a screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks (Native Son) Daniels puts all the cards out on the table so the audience can make up their own mind about the events that shaped Holiday’s life.
From scenes of graphic sex with men who promise to further Holiday’s career through to Holiday and her entourage openly using heroin backstage, despite people warning her not to, Daniels does show the uglier side of Holiday’s life. At the same time though he also shows law-enforcement meetings where it is discussed how drugs can be planted on Holiday to bring her down, while the film also clearly shows that the resentment towards Holiday from the FBI was solely based on the fact that they no longer wanted her to perform Strange Fruit as it was exposing the hateful act of lynching to the world.
The film is made even more powerful by the performance of Andra Day. Known mainly for her vocal work on film soundtracks, she has been involved with everything from Doctor Who through to the re-make of Ben-Hur, this is a real break-out film for Day as an actress. Day’s portrayal of Holiday is as close to the archival footage as possible while as a first time feature actress she never shies away from any of the more graphic scenes and instead shines revealing herself as an actress you feel could star in any role thrown at her.
She is also well supported by the cast around her. Garrett Hedlund relishes the opportunity to play the bad guy while Trevante Rhodes also announces himself as a leading man. One of the more intriguing performances throughout the film though is that of Leslie Jordan (The Help) who steals the show in every scene where he gets to depict legendary music/theatre journalist Reginald Lord Devine.
The graphic nature of The United States vs Billie Holliday only enhances the rough life that Holiday had to endure. As a filmmaker Daniels should be congratulated for the honest style that he brings to the film, while audience members should be prepared to be put through an emotional ringer with a film that will stay in your memory for a long time to come.