Lady Sings The Blues is one of my all time favorite films. I’ve seen it well over 100 times, so when I heard Lee Daniels was tackling Billie Holiday – I was intrigued. Daniels has a unique eye and sensibility in approaching material that is unconventional, uncomfortable and uncompromising. Yet, clearly he was a fan of Berry Gordy’s classic, which is evident throughout especially during musical performances by an astounding Andra Day.
The United States vs Billie Holiday, adapted from Johann Hari’s “Chasing The Scream” by Tony winner Suzan-Lori Parks, focuses on FBI’s obsession with Holiday for drugs and her insistence to sing “Strange Fruit,” a song which graphically and lyrically reveals personal horrors of lynching. A crime that to this day is still not illegal.
If you are looking to see a romanticized, updated version of Gordy’s classic, you would be barking up the wrong tree…literally. This film captures complications, contradictions and downright shrewd nature of a woman who was revered, hated and hunted for her artistry and her ability to stand up when it was not popular for a woman of color to do so during those times in our history.
The film has its hiccups here and there regarding the manner in which this story is conveyed. However, what can’t be denied is the star power of Andra Day, who in her cinematic debut, creates another legendary performance placing alongside Diana Ross and Audra MacDonald (who portrayed and won a Tony as Billie). Andra’s openness, vulnerability and desire to avenge and present Holiday at her best, worst and in-between is fascinating to behold. Andra Day IS Billie Holiday.
Miss Lawrence, Trevante Rhodes, Adriane Lenox, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Tyler James Williams, as supporting cast are strong, but under utilized in my opinion. Kris Bowers again provides arrangements and compositions that are gorgeously perfect reflecting the sound, energy and revelry, enhancing every moment and scene as it’s own secret character. Andrew Dunn’s cinematography is simply stunning as are hair, makeup and costume design from Paolo Nieddu, Laini Thompson, Carla Farmer, Terry Hunt, Stacie Merriman and Charles Gregory Ross.
Now streaming via Hulu, you would not want to miss, which is hands down, a brave, focused portrayal of one of our most revered jazz/blues artists spiritually inhabited by the incomparable Andra Day.