Directorial control over the course of a film can make or break the quality of a feature film.
A strong hand at the wheel may lead to an exact, yet artistic vision that pierces the audience’s soul or a subtle touch might shine the light on a specific actor or highlight the nuances of the screenplay.
Poor direction – or worse yet, ineffective direction – can muddy the waters to such a degree that even the best of individual efforts or captivating stories will become a middling mess.
Such is the case for Lee Daniels, whose focused efforts on a small story about a troubled pregnant teen were the toast of 2009’s Sundance Film Festival and an Oscar award for Monique in Precious.
His latest work in collaboration with Hulu is a 130-minute odyssey into the life of famed singer Billie Holiday at the tail end of her success, battling drug addiction and constant harassment by the FBI’s narcotics unit hellbent on preventing her from singing her classic hit ‘Strange Fruit,’ a musical poem about lynching in the South.
Grammy Award-winning singer Andra Day makes her feature film debut as the title character, wowing audiences with both her immense vocal talent and ability to replicate Holiday’s songs as well as her emotional core that anchors numerous heavy dramatic moments throughout the film.
A seasoned vocalist who knows how to connect to the lyric, Day is able to capture the essence of her character and project Holiday’s inner thoughts outward far better than any first-time performer probably should be able to. It’s to Daniels’ credit that his greatest successes in cinema have come working with new actresses and guiding them to stellar debuts. Day’s mesmerizing turn has the same raw power that made Gabourey Sidibe an Academy Award nominee for Precious.
Moonlight star Trevante Rhodes plays a conflicted character that serves as both antagonist and love interest for Holiday, and while he has some genuine chemistry with Day, there’s not really enough in the middling screenplay to give Rhodes a chance to make Jimmy Fletcher relatable or intriguing.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday attempts to be a wide-ranging, comprehensive biopic but suffers greatly from Daniels’ immense lack of focus as a storyteller, both visually and narratively.
Daniels spoils a terrific Day performance with a manic, inconsistent feature that meanders back and forth over time leaving audiences constantly disjointed in the narrative. While it might seem like a nice touch to overlay period footage to set up Holiday concerts, fading in and out of black and white sequences at strange, uneven times just puts viewers unnecessarily on edge for a relatively straightforward biopic.
Often the narrative will choose to focus on themes that could easily have been a single subject for a tighter, more intimate portrayal of Holiday’s life – be that racism in the 1940-50’s, her run-ins with the FBI, substance abuse or a series of emotionally and sexually abusive men who took advantage of Holiday from a young age.
Crammed together in a bloated feature, Daniels’ film never truly gets into a rhythm and simply slogs its way through until the next song from Day can recapture an audience looking down at their phones.
In all likelihood, Holiday will go the way of Judy come awards season, a singular biopic with a buzz-backed lead performance nomination for the actress playing the title character although Day has little chance to win an Oscar like Renee Zellweger did last year for portraying Judy Garland in her final days.
Less a coherent feature and more like a CliffsNotes version of a miniseries that was never made, The United States vs. Billie Holiday might be worth a watch to see Day’s fantastic debut on the big screen that truly evokes a legendary performer, but the film itself is too much of a mishmash to not be at least a minor disappointment.
Note: This review was written based off an advanced screening for voting members of the Film Independent Spirit Awards.