I don’t know that you’ll see a performance as hellaciously focused as Andra Day’s in a movie as earnestly scattered as “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” Day has been rising up through the music industry for over a decade, with YouTube mashups leading to Grammy-nominated albums and mentors like Stevie Wonder and Spike Lee along the way, but this is the singer’s first major acting role, and it is a marvel of dramatic and vocal technique as well as a full-on possession.
The film, which arrives on Hulu this week and has already garnered Day a pair of Golden Globe nominations, covers the last decade or so of Holiday’s life, when the jazz legend was battling a heroin addiction and the Federal Bureau of Investigation with desperation on both fronts. She has recorded the anti-lynching landmark “Strange Fruit,” but the US government won’t let her sing it in public — she gets two words out in an early nightclub scene before the police raid the stage.
Holiday is still on her first husband, trombonist/manager Jimmy Monroe (Eric LaRay Harvey), who mistreats her, like most of the men in her life. The film implies Monroe is in the pocket of the slick young head of the FBI’s narcotics division Harry Anslinger, who, as played by a surprisingly uninspired Garrett Hedlund, is obsessed with bringing Holiday down. “You hate her because she’s strong, beautiful ... and Black,” Anslinger is told at one point, a sterling example of the script’s leaden dialogue.
That script, also surprisingly, is by the gifted playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”), who takes a small section from Johann Hari’s book, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” and expands it into a 130-minute semi-fantasia on a great and troubled artist. The director is Lee Daniels, of “Precious” (2009) and “The Butler” (2013), here evoking the historical era and its figures with verve and intelligence but unable to find a dramatic center other than his electrifying star.
The most problematic aspect of “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is the introduction of the semi-fictional Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), who was indeed a Black FBI agent instrumental in Holiday’s arrests and bureaucratic harassment but was in no way a star-struck Lady Day fan who became her lover late in life. Rhodes, so good as the grown hero of “Moonlight,” is effortlessly charismatic here, but even he can’t get his character — who at one point shoots heroin with Holiday out of sheer devotion — to make any sense.
Other figures pass through the proceedings: Natasha Lyonne as actress Tallulah Bankhead, Tyler James Williams as saxophone great Lester Young — greatly underserved here — and a cameo by a young Roy Cohn (Damian Joseph Quinn). Da’Vine Joy Randolph (“Dolemite Is My Name”) and reality TV star Miss Lawrence are both quite moving as Lady Day’s truest and longest-suffering supporters.
As it should be, though, you can’t take your eyes off Holiday, who in Day’s performance is a diva and a lost soul, the nation’s conscience and her own worst enemy. The film and the actress don’t sugarcoat it: This Billie Holiday is a white-hot hot mess. But we’re made to understand the lifelong abuse that drove the singer to self-loathing and to junk, as well as the pride, the art, the joy that propelled her through life. And when Day opens her mouth and sings “All of Me” or “Solitude” or, in the movie’s dead center, a rendition of “Strange Fruit” that damns this country to hell, the transformation is complete. That’s Day’s voice we hear but Holiday’s raspy, weary soul we’re witnessing.
Some of the hardest scenes to believe are the truest. Holiday did strip defiantly naked when police arrested her for drug possession; the feds did manacle the singer to her hospital bed as she lay dying of cirrhosis at 44. On the other hand, there’s no evidence that Holiday herself ever witnessed a lynching, so the film’s replay of an invented sequence from that other Billie Holiday biopic — the factually challenged “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972) — seems weirdly gratuitous, if appropriately horrifying. By then, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” has given up any semblance of coherence and devolved into muddy impressionism. “All of me, why not take all of me?” Holiday sang in her most famous number, but only Andra Day gets the best here. The movie takes the rest.
THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY
Directed by Lee Daniels. Written by Suzan-Lori Parks, based on a book by Johann Hari. Starring Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan. Available for streaming on Hulu. 130 minutes. Unrated (as R: language, nudity, sexuality, drug use, lynching violence)