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


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.

And while Daniels and Day convey a plausible sense of Holiday’s magnetism in front of an audience, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” shows little interest in the discipline and craft that made those indelible nightclub and concert-hall moments possible. The saxophonist Lester Young (Tyler James Williams) is a ubiquitous but peripheral presence, appearing more as a fellow addict than as an indispensable creative partner. At one point you hear him mutter something about “C sharp,” but that’s about all the musical talk the movie has time for.

Instead, the film focuses on episodes drawn from “Chasing the Scream,” Johann Hari’s journalistic history of the war on drugs. Holiday was a particular obsession of Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), an anti-narcotics zealot in the F.B.I. In Hari’s account, his hounding of her was motivated in no small part by racism, especially by his hatred of “Strange Fruit,” the harrowing anti-lynching tone poem that Holiday first recorded in 1939.

That song, the subject of a fascinating book by David Margolick, deserves its own biopic, faint glimpses of which are afforded by Daniels and Parks. Anslinger, the F.B.I. and the New York police are determined to stop Holiday from performing “Strange Fruit.” Her arrest, imprisonment and the permanent loss of her New York City cabaret card result from her defiance of this attempted censorship.

www.nytimes.com 2021-02-25 13:46:51

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