The more you know about legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday the more trouble you’re likely to have digesting Lee Daniels’s punishing new biopic. While it is less fictitious than the glossy 1972 Diana Ross movie Lady Sings the Blues, it remains a frustrating patchwork of fact and fabrication.
This much is true: Billie Holiday’s life was a mess, from childhood on. She was born out of wedlock and never knew her father. Raped at a shockingly young age, she worked odd jobs at a brothel before reaching adolescence.
Her one refuge, outside of drugs, was music. But this film is more interested in depicting all the different ways that Holiday was brutalized than showing us how music enabled her to transcend—however briefly—the misery she endured from men who exploited and abused her.
Singer Andra Day makes a strong impression in her starring debut, adopting the look and sound of Lady Day. She doesn’t shy away from the nastier aspects of Holiday’s personality; it’s a gutsy performance, especially for a newcomer.
The other components of Daniels’ meandering melodrama aren’t in the same class. The screenplay is credited to Suzan-Lori Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who used the book Chasing the Scream, by Johann Hari as her primary source. Was it her idea to have such diverse figures as Louis Armstrong and Senator Joseph McCarthy turn up so fleetingly? And what’s the point of including famously hedonistic actress Tallulah Bankhead without providing some context? Natasha Lyonne makes no effort to capture the outsized personality of the Broadway star.
Much is made of Holiday’s insistence on singing “Strange Fruit,” the mournful ballad about lynching written by a Jewish schoolteacher named Abel Meeropol. (Without explicitly saying so, the movie implies that Billie wrote it herself.) Her attachment to this haunting song tells us something about her character and integrity, but the film paints a superficial picture of her career overall. Saxophonist Lester Young, an important friend and collaborator, is only referred to in passing, and then by his nickname “Prez,” without further explanation.
Biopics like this ought to come with a warning label that says “Do Not Believe Everything You See.” While it is true that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover targeted black people and persecuted Holiday for years because of her heroin addiction, it’s less clear whether his agent Jimmy Fletcher (played by Trevante Rhodes) carried on a sexual relationship with the singer.
There was no excuse for our government’s treatment of a great artist. But this film does her no favors by failing to express how much music meant to Billie Holiday—or what an impact she made on audiences and fellow musicians alike.
The film is now playing in theaters and on Hulu.