Another Disappointing Biopic of a Legend Who Deserved Better
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is practically the antithesis of Judas and the Black Messiah, in terms of quality. The only aspect of the film which made it remotely watchable was the Andra Day performance at the heart of it, who portrayed the titular Billie Holiday. Day showcases her golden pipes and her ridiculous range in acting, but ultimately the lackluster script and half-assed direction dragged the film down. The film certainly highlights the magnificent songs and performances of the legendary singer/songwriter, but that doesn't even tell half the story - and the other half is told in a lackadaisical, uninspired, and on-the-nose manner. Normally, I would outline the strengths of the film in my reviews. Since it will be especially difficult in this case, I will do my level best.
The Andra Day Performance
Let me just start off by saying that Andra Day is a goddess and she deserves the world. The story and person of Billie Holiday also deserves the world, and Andra Day does bring it. Day brings the emotional complexities (which I wish the film explored more), the killer singing voice, and the profound struggle and suffering she experienced throughout her life and professional career.
The performance is stellar from top to bottom - everything you may have heard is all that and more. To say that it's worthy of Oscar attention is a severe understatement. The supporting cast all either does the bare minimum, are melodramatic, or ham it up to one thousand percent. So, it's really Andra Day who carries the film on her back and does her very best to elevate the utterly contrived material.
Andra Day does, in fact, sing all the marvelously done performance sequences in the film. As I alluded to earlier, it really does succeed on that level at the very least. It's just the narrative, plot and character-driven scenes that were lacking - and to be frank, those are the scenes that NEED to be effective for this film to work as a whole.
It's really no surprise she won the Globe if you do see the film. And, I would go as far to say you really don't need to watch the film. But, if you do feel compelled to watch it for her performance, it is at least worth it to see her in action. She sings her heart out and gives it her all in the more emotionally charged scenes. And there is one scene in particular, which I allude to later on, which is her best and a highlight of the film.
The (Halfway) Effective Filmmaking
As stated, at least half the film was well made, well shot, etc etc. But, it seemed like the rest of it was just half-assed. The direction seemed like Lee Daniels just said, "let's get through these scenes just so that we can get to the fun part." And it really shows. The vocal performance scenes are well-placed and expertly crafted. Again, Andra Day absolutely nails these scenes. She really does shine here, and of course her dramatic scenes work, but only for her. The way that its shot gives it a sort of grainy and old-timey feel to immerse us in that time period, and at times its edited in a very compelling and propulsive way. The pacing is actually a surprising strength as even though what you're trudging through can be tough at times, at least it moves in a way which keeps you almost intrigued and eager for what's to come next. There is, however, one particular sequence (you may or may not have heard) that is especially impressively done, albeit difficult to watch. You'll know it when you see it. It's just too bad that it painfully boxed itself in as a run-of-the-mill biopic rather than an interesting exploration of a profoundly enigmatic historical figure. That's the problem: it doesn't do anything to set itself apart from the Bohemian Rhapsody's of the world.
The (Lackluster) Screenplay
The screenplay at work here unfortunately falls completely flat. The dialogue and themes are, although heavy, painfully on-the-nose and do nothing to explore subtlety or nuance. Films with theme and tone of this type must be handled with care and simply cannot be as unsubtle like a jackhammer. The dialogue at times is almost face-palmingly (not a word, I know) cringeworthy and so painstakingly oblivious/tone-deaf. The FBI agents are laughably villainous but in such an un-cunning (I know) and cartoonish way. It's also unclear at times whether some of the black counterparts to Billie are supposed to be sympathetic or not, which is head-scratching to say the least. The script is also structured in such a baffling way at times. I suffered from whiplash going from one sequence to the next. SPOILERS: What was especially confounding was her leap from healing to being back on drugs and alcohol and all of a sudden, she outright says exactly what's wrong with her (another painful, on-the-nose moment), she coughs up blood, and we're in the hospital before, boom, she's dead. Also, the courtroom drama aspect of it is barely even in the film (???) considering its title, that should have been a primary focus. Additionally, there is a same-sex relationship subplot that's barely explored at all; I just wasn't sure what they were even going for there. These are just a few examples, but make no mistake, the film is completely filled with frustratingly contrived dramatic dialogue sequences with interspersed concert sequences that only feature the lyrics of Holiday's songs, with the exception of a couple that include the FBI crashing the party and the legendary vocalist in the process of incarceration.
When all is said and done, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a complete misfire from director/producer Lee Daniels that, luckily for the film, boasts an outstanding lead performance from Andra Day. The film suffers from a less than quality script that is so frustrating considering the massive potential this profoundly interesting story had for this legendary artist. The awards-worthy performance and the impressive concert sequences ultimately are not enough to save this confounding mess of a film. Overall, the film will go down as yet another forgettable music biopic with an unforgettable portrayal at the center of it. All I can do is lament the lost potential and praise the Andra Day performance that is perhaps even better than what you've heard.
Painfully Average/run of the mill
How did this get made
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is currently available to stream on Hulu.