• February 4, 2023

Hulu’s New Billie Holliday Biopic Falls Short Of Capturing Her Real Story : NPR

Though Andra Day plays the jazz legend with conviction, The United States vs. Billie Holiday fictionalizes the details of Holiday’s life where the real story is dramatic enough.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “STRANGE FRUITS”)

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (singing) Southern trees have a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood on the roots. Black bodies sway in the southern breeze. Strange fruits hang on the poplars.

DAVIES: Billie Holiday in 1956, who takes up her signature song “Strange Fruit” again, the lyrics of which represent a lynching. The song plays a central role in Hulu’s new biopic “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday”. Our jazz critic and jazz movie fanatic Kevin Whitehead has this review.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: The movies weren’t kind to Billie Holiday. In the 1935 Duke Ellington short film “Symphony In Black”, Holiday played a scorned woman at the age of 19 who was thrown onto the studio floor by her unfaithful husband after being painfully shot. In the 1947 report “New Orleans” she played the housemaid of a white opera singer. But she was also allowed to sing in both films. In the 1972 biography “Lady Sings The Blues” she was played by Diana Ross, who didn’t look or sound like her. Worse, the story turned the last of her terrible husbands, Louis McKay, played by Billy Dee Williams, into a sacred figure who is always there for them.

Now comes Hulu’s “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday,” directed by Lee Daniels and based on a script by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. The best part about it, by far, is singer and newcomer Andra Day at the top. She wears the movie with conviction and looks like the real holiday with those gardenias in her hair. It also captures Billie’s later singing voice well.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “THE UNITED STATES VS BILLIE HOLIDAY”)

ANDRA DAY: (singing as Billie Holiday) Oh love me. Why not…

WHITEHEAD: Andra Day also repeats the croaky way Holiday spoke in her final years in the late 1950s. It doesn’t matter that she speaks through the whole picture like in this scene from 1947.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “THE UNITED STATES VS BILLIE HOLIDAY”)

DUSAN DUKIC: (as Joe Glaser) I cut Strange Fruit.

TAG: (as Billie Holiday) No, Joe. I wanna sing the damn song, okay? The association promotes it. People pay good money to come here and hear me sing.

DUKIC: (as Joe) I’ve told you a hundred times that people in high places don’t like you singing this song.

TAG: (as Billie) And I’ve asked you over a hundred times, which people, Joe? What are you looking at him for? [Expletive]I am the one who pays you

DUKIC: (as Joe) The government.

WHITEHEAD: In a way, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday is a correction to Lady Sings The Blues. Louis McKay, played by Rob Morgan, is not an angel in this picture. He’s one of a number of her abusive pals. The film openly deals with the appalling ways she was treated by her husbands and law enforcement agencies until she was arrested for heroin possession in 1959 while on her deathbed in hospital.

In “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday,” federal agents campaigned vigorously for years to get them to stop singing “Strange Fruit,” that devastating portrait of lynching as a Mediterranean tradition. There are more anecdotes than hard evidence for such a campaign. The film’s great evil is federal anti-drug tsar Harry Anslinger, played by Garrett Hedlund in a grim one-note performance. His Anslinger is even worse than the real one, who liked to crack down on drug-using jazz musicians, especially black ones, a surefire way of making headlines.

The real Anslinger may have been interested in Holiday, but in the film her drug busts are just a leverage to get her to stop singing that song. Apparently, the film Anslinger evades its Washington duties and obsessively shows up at Holiday’s New York gigs to be stared at by the audience as if it hates music in general. Even his wife is a vacation fan. He later harasses her in the hospital while she is dying.

In the 1940s of the film, Anslinger instructs African American narcotics agent Jimmy Fletcher, played by “Moonlight’s” Trevante Rhodes, to get used to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “THE UNITED STATES VS BILLIE HOLIDAY”)

TREVANTE RHODES: (as Jimmy Fletcher) Sorry for asking, but why is this song so important to us?

GARRETT HEDLUND: (as Harry Anslinger) Hoover says it’s un-American. You heard these lyrics. You provoke people the wrong way.

WHITEHEAD: There was a real Jimmy Fletcher, and he and Holiday got on friendly terms despite their controversial relationship. In the movie, Jimmy falls deeply in love with her and she falls in love with him, and they have a hot, long-running affair. It’s pure poppy seeds, but Andra Day and Trevante Rhodes have good onscreen sex chemistry that adds some charm and romance to a mostly bleak narrative. In this scene, they first get to know each other before Billie finds out he’s a Nark.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “THE UNITED STATES VS BILLIE HOLIDAY”)

RHODES: (as Jimmy) Why do you never sing “Strange Fruit”?

TAG: (as Billie) “Strange Fruit.” I have to be pretty high to sing this one.

RHODES: (as Jimmy) I never heard you sing it.

TAG: (as Billie) It’s a song about important things, you know, things that are going on in the country. I don’t think people know these things are important to me. Most of my other songs are all about love.

RHODES: (as Jimmy) Love is important too, right?

WHITEHEAD: Later, after he was exposed, Jimmy once shoots heroin, which kind of flashes him back to her unhappy childhood, a narcotic mind-amalgamation. Holiday once said she was asked to stop singing “Strange Fruit” during a week-long stall at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia in 1947, just before the drug bankruptcy that put her in jail for a year. In the film, a Fed orders local cops to shut down their Philly show as soon as they defiantly begin that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “THE UNITED STATES VS BILLIE HOLIDAY”)

TAG: (singing as Billie) Southern trees.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as character) Get her off the stage.

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, that didn’t happen. She completed a week in Philly without incident. In the worst case, “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday” is as unnoticed as “Lady Sings The Blues” and even repeats the fictional episode of the film in which Billie enters the scene of a lynching in the south as if she had to see it for yourself to really sing it. As in “Lady Sings The Blues” she played in Carnegie Hall in 1948 with a big band and strings, not with a quartet as in real life. And like the Diana Ross film, this one invents a good and loving man who is loyal to her.

To be fair, biographical films are entertainment, not a history lesson. This is hardly the first biopic to make things up if the real story is dramatic enough. Fictional incidents can illustrate a higher truth about the power of a protest song or a singer’s personal magnetism. But getting Billie stuck with her band in the middle of a tour in the south is a blow. She respected her fellow musicians too much for that.

Billie Holiday Deserves Better, a biopic that shows, for example, how her voice has changed over the course of her career as a musician over the quarter century, from girly to mature to brittle, reflecting all that heartache and hard life. Then we would have a little closer to the real story of Billie Holiday.

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book, Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories in Film. He reviewed “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday,” which premiered on Hulu today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “WHO LOVES YOU”)

HOLIDAY: (singing) Who loves you? Ask yourself the question, who loves you honey? And tell me who thinks of you a million times a day and who is blue and lonely, honey, when you’re gone? Say who needs you, needs you every minute? Who is there for you from the start? Oh who just longs for your caresses? You don’t have to make three guesses. Who loves you honey

DAVIES: On Monday’s show, we’re talking to writer, performer, and magician Derek DelGaudio. His new memories are of the days when he used his manual skills to cheat other players in a private high-stakes poker game. I hope you can participate.

The executive producer of FRESH AIR is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional technical support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. For Terry Gross, I’m Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE BY BILLIE HOLIDAYS “WHO LOVES YOU”)

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