With the immense talent and passion found in the lyrics and music Billie Holiday provided it is an immediate, shameful display to see The United States vs. Billie Holiday come close to tarnishing the reputation and skill of such a performer. Detailing the drug dependency and subsequent federal investigation into the Lady in Satin singer, this piece from director Lee Daniels turns rather wrought stories of decades-long investigations into useless jargon that exploits the waning relationship between artist and government body. It happened with Seberg, and it is no real surprise that it happens here, for the Hollywood machine will rumble through without so much the slightest change in pace, and these are the unfortunate, inevitable results.
Leading star Andra Day receives her time to shine, and her performance as Holiday is exactly what any audience member could expect. It is feasible and well-crafted but mired entirely by a horrific script and an inability to demonstrate an understanding of the horrors of modern history. It needs musical cues and harsh imagery, these statements alone not enough to hammer away an important message from Daniels, who dilutes his product with all the expected biopic button prompts. Almost immediately, the pangs of political tension are made, the inevitable response to these brief biopics. In the form of an interview, the flashbacks and narration are made to seem almost palatable, but the inevitable lulls in pacing and quality make themselves apparent over the course of this two-hour slog.
Concrete performances are nowhere to be found, and with the bland direction of Daniels’ style, it is an unavoidable state of underwhelmingly safe production. Annoyingly poor at times, what little The United States vs Billie Holiday gets correct is not worth suffering through. An oddly erratic editing style that relies far too often on quick-cuts and fades, there is a disconnect felt between performer and camera. They are portrayed with a static lack of flair. Camera shots and scenarios that are so gentle, characters linger on screen for either five minutes or hours, and both are equally forgettable. There is a sense of structure, here, but The United States vs Billie Holiday never amounts to anything more than the usual banalities of conflict between a troubled star and a government looking to make an example of her.
Rekindling the embers of a controversy that died alongside the tragic passing of Holiday, The United States vs Billie Holiday looks to reopen old wounds. Long-buried problems and unforgivable hounding led to an exponential increase in the difficulties of a singer, and Daniels dares to suggest that both parties were to blame. Maybe he would craft something clearer or poignant with the narrative if he cared to do so, but what is clear throughout this is that safety and precaution is always at the forefront. No risks are taken, no rewards are reaped, and the story of Holiday’s encounter with a bureau of investigation remains, as expected, rather underwhelming.