‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ Review: Singing for Her Life

Lee Daniels’s hectic biopic portrays the singer as a victim of abuse, addiction and government persecution.

By A.O. Scott

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Every great musician is one of a kind, but the biographies of great musicians — or more precisely their biopics — end up looking pretty much alike. Childhood trauma is followed by success and its consequences, usually including addiction and love trouble. A chronicle of artistic triumph doubles as a cautionary tale, with ruin and redemption wrapped around each other like twin strands of narrative DNA. If all else fails, the soundtrack music offers occasional reminders of why we should care.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” directed by Lee Daniels from a script by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, follows the standard template, with a few new elements added to the mix. Concentrating on the last dozen years of Holiday’s life — she was 44 when she died, of liver disease, in 1959 — the movie flashes back to her grim childhood and expands to include many facets of her life and personality.

She suffers abuse at the hands of a series of men and relentless persecution from the government. The only lover who treats her well is also an undercover F.BI. agent. We see Holiday as a heroin user, a devoted but not always reliable friend, an operatic figure of towering pain and sublime resilience.

But not really as an artist. Andra Day, who plays Holiday, is a canny and charismatic performer, and the film’s hectic narrative is punctuated with nightclub and concert-hall scenes that capture some of the singer’s magnetism. Rather than lip-sync the numbers, Day sings them in a voice that has some of Holiday’s signature breathy rasp and delicate lilt, and suggests her ability to move from whimsy to anguish and back in the space of a phrase.

For the 1972 film “Lady Sings the Blues,” Diana Ross recorded fresh versions of Holiday classics, offering tribute rather than mimicry and filtering familiar songs through her own distinctive style. By contrast, the arrangements in Daniels’s film (including “All of Me,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” “Them There Eyes” and most importantly “Strange Fruit”) dwell in a sonic uncanny valley, and also in an aesthetic gray area. They don’t sound bad, but they lack both the audacity of reinvention and the humility of imitation.

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