The United States vs Billie Holiday

Most people in the film world haven’t heard of Andra Day –  but that’s about to change following the year’s most sensational screen debut…

This film finds her playing, and singing, jazz icon Billie Holiday. Andra is a singer who earned a Grammy nomination in 2016 for Rise Up, but now delivers a blistering performance that may well be crowned with a 2021 Oscar nomination from Academy voters who love that sort of stuff and have previously fallen for tortured singer roles such as Renee Zellweger’s Judy Garland and Marion Cotillard’s Edith Piaf.

And remember, Diana Ross got a nomination for playing Holiday in the film Lady Sings The Blues back in 1972 (losing out to Judy Garland’s daughter Liza Minelli, for Cabaret) – weird how every dot joins up in films, isn’t it?

I’d be so bold as to say Andra Day blows them all away in revealing the singer’s charisma, glamour, pain, addictions, vulnerabilities and incandescent stage power. You really get an idea of why Billie Holiday is still so revered, and what it was like to live in her murky, glamorous 40s and 50s world of Harlem, heroin and harassment.

Days’ vocal impersonation of Lady Day is fabulous, too, even when she performs Strange Fruit, the haunting civil rights anthem that’s almost impossible for anyone else to get right (Nina Simone’s is the only other version I countenance) and which forms the heart of this whole film.

Andra’s performance of the song throbs with relevance still – in the movie, as in real life, despite the misgivings of various club owners and her scoundrel managers, Billie insists on performing the song every night and the FBI fear she’ll incite protest riots just in the way she sings it, with such confrontational sadness.

So they send a black agent Jimmy Fletcher (played by Trevonte Rhodes, from Oscar winner Moonlight) to catch her out for drug abuse, but he falls for his magnetic, wayward subject. When you see and hear Andra Day, you can hardly blame him and, as per James Erskine’s recent Billie documentary, Holiday had that same sexual appetite and seductive quality.

I like the film very much, not just Day’s magnetic performance – there’s a lot going on for sure and it’s got some wild variations of tone in it, but it’s directed by Lee Daniels, who did Precious, so we shouldn’t expect, nor want, a conventional movie – in fact, it’s the wild bits that work best, the sequences of her singing and one hallucinatory bit in particular of Billie on the road revisiting her childhood home and trauma and wandering through the rooms of her mind.

This is sexy, seductive, angry, jazzy, intoxicating stuff, told with style and panache, and it’s one of my best movies of the year so far.