Normally, I wouldn't say that a movie is worth seeing because of one dynamic performance. But The United States vs. Billie Holiday, provides an exception. Not only does Andra Day embody the defiant elements of the iconic singer, she also sings in ways that do justice to Holiday without becoming a self-conscious imitation.
The drug-addicted, government-persecuted Holiday didn't have an easy life and Day finds Holiday's pain, talent, and pluck, which likely all were related.
Director Lee Daniels (Precious) doesn't try for the swooning romance that marked Lady Sings the Blues, which featured Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams, a movie I love for scenes between Ross and Richard Pryor, as a jazz pianist.
Watching The United States vs. Billie Holiday I got the feeling that Daniels was trying to give the material the turbulent feeling of a life that bounced off a variety of men, musical opportunities, and trouble with the FBI.
The approach may strike you as bleary and scattered or one that's attuned to the dizzy rhythms of a life that ended when Holiday was only 44 years old. Perhaps a bit of both.
The movie's core connects to Holiday's performance of the song Strange Fruit, a mournful tune about lynchings in the South. The movie tells us that the FBI feared that the song might rouse protests that threatened white supremacy.
Daniels breezes through biographical information as he follows Holiday through the 1930s and 1940s and offers a flashback to Holiday's youth. Her mother worked in a brothel and tried to force Holiday into the trade before she reached her teen years.
Working from a screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks, Daniels sketches the many relationships that defined Holiday's love life.
Trevante Rhodes portrays Jimmy Fletcher, an FBI agent who poses as an ardent fan and develops a complex, ambiguous (even mildly incomprehensible relationship) with Holiday. Rob Morgan portrays Billie's bully of a husband. Later she takes up with John Levy (Tone Bell), a club owner and manager who also takes advantage of her.
Garrett Hedlund appears as Harry Anslinger, the FBI Bureau of Narcotics agent who targeted Holiday.
Some of the movie simply falters. A mostly useless framing device features an interviewer (Leslie Jordan) who's conducting an interview with Holiday that alternates between cloying empathy and trashy rants.
Daniels showcases the famous Carnegie Hall concert that Holiday staged when she lost her Cabaret License and no longer could play New York's clubs.
Sometimes the movie flings things at us and then races forward. The screenplay briefly flirts with the idea that Holiday had an affair with Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), for example.
Through it all, Holiday continues to sing Strange Fruit, a song written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish school teacher from the Bronx who, along with his wife, adopted the children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after the couple was executed for espionage.
Authorship aside, had Holiday never sung Strange Fruit, we might never have heard much about it. And that brings us back to Day, whose performance outlasts the movie's flaws, excesses and indulgences. It's something to see.