The more you know about legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, the more trouble you are likely to have digesting Lee Daniel’s punishing new biopic. It’s less fictional than the brilliant 1972 Diana Ross film, though Lady sings the blues It remains a frustrating patchwork of facts and fabrication.
This much is true: Billie Holiday’s life has been a mess from childhood. She was born out of wedlock and never knew her father. Raped at a shocking young age, she worked odd jobs in a brothel before reaching puberty.
Her only refuge outside of drugs was music. But this film is more interested in portraying all of the different types of brutalization of Holiday than in showing us how music enabled her to overcome the misery she endured from men who exploited and abused her – how briefly she was may be.
Singer Andra Day makes a strong impression on her debut in the lead role and takes on the look and sound of Lady Day. She doesn’t shy away from the nastier aspects of Holiday’s personality. It’s a bold feat, especially for a newbie.
The other components of Daniel’s meandering melodrama are not of the same class. The script is credited to Suzan-Lori Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who used the book Follow the screamby Johann Hari as the main source. Was it your idea to briefly reveal personalities as diverse as Louis Armstrong and Senator Joseph McCarthy? And what’s the point of including famous hedonistic actress Tallulah Bankhead without providing context? Natasha Lyonne makes no effort to capture the Broadway star’s oversized personality.
Much emphasis is placed on Holiday insisting on singing “Strange Fruit,” the sad ballad about lynching written by a Jewish school teacher named Abel Meeropol. (Without specifically saying so, the film implies that Billie wrote it herself.) Her attachment to this haunting song says something about her character and integrity, but the film paints a superficial picture of her career as a whole. The saxophonist Lester Young, an important friend and colleague, is referred to by his nickname “Prez” only incidentally and without further explanation.
Biographies like this should have a warning label that says, “Don’t believe everything you see.” FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover targeted black people for heroin addiction for years and persecuted Holiday for years. However, it’s less clear whether his agent Jimmy Fletcher (played by Trevante Rhodes) had a sexual relationship with the singer.
There was no excuse for our government’s treatment of a great artist. But this movie does her a disservice by not expressing how much music Billie Holiday was – or the impact she had on audiences and fellow musicians alike.
The film is now showing in theaters and on Hulu.