Reel Dad: Andra Day shines in 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday'

Andra Day stars in "The United States vs. Billie Holiday."

Andra Day stars in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”

IMDb / Contributed photo

In 1972, Diana Ross was Oscar nominated for recreating music legend Billie Holiday in the glitzy biopic “Lady Sings the Blues.” Although moviemakers rewrote many details of the performer’s life, and the film played like a standard Hollywood treatment of an extraordinary life, it showed how powerful an actress Ross could be on screen.

Some 49 years later, a singer named Andra Day should be Oscar nominated for daring to create a fresh take on this Holiday’s story in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” Like Ross, the singer is a smash as a film actress; unlike Ross, Day chooses to precisely recreate the unique Holiday approach to a song. From her first moments as Holiday, this performer-turned-actress captures the imagination of the lens as she tries to unpack the complex layers that define a music legend.

Sadly, the film’s script gets in the way. If “Lady Sings the Blues” glossed over the details, this new film tries too hard to discover a compelling narrative. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” begins just after World War II when Holiday, at the peak of her career, thrills audiences with her vocal stylings. But the FBI - afraid that her hit “Strange Fruit” may incite people to protest over racial unrest - begins to focus on Holliday’s reputation for using illegal drugs. The film follows how the government tries to control the singer, prompting Holiday to try to protect herself, while the public embraces the intensified dramatic texture of her performances.

A biography this complicated can be a challenge to capture and follow. While the Ross version decorated Holiday’s realities with movie romance, the new film can’t seem to choose which story to explore. Should it focus on how the government fears Holiday and her work? Or how she should be punished for using drugs? Should the camera celebrate the music, the singer and the characters that enter her life? Or dwell on the tragedies she overcomes? Unfortunately, the film tries to do a little of everything. We experience the challenges that drug use can bring and revisit the turbulence of Holiday’s childhood. We see the entourage that supports the performer and the relationships that matter. But we never sense a clear narrative. Instead of exploring the choices that Holiday makes, we experience the music that dysfunction and disappointment can create.

But when Day steps on stage, and the camera captures her sublime interpretations of Holiday classics, the weaknesses in the script hardly matters. This actress is too secure and savvy to let anything get in her way. She commands the screen with authenticity and presence that make us want to learn everything we can about this portrayal of Holiday. It’s no surprise the musical moments are sublime; what’s remarkable is how Day, the actress, makes every word sing.

We treasure Holiday for the music she shared despite the battles she endured. Any effort to tell her story, no matter the flaws, will always be welcome. And this time, once again, a movie star is born.

Summary: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Content: High. Director Lee Daniels continues the movies' fascination with music legend Billie Holiday.

Entertainment: High. Thanks to a star-making performance from singer Andra Day, the film makes us want to learn more about this extraordinary life.

Message: Medium. Because the film struggles to find its story, however, the message behind the music is muddled.

Relevance: High. Any chance to revisit a music legend, and watch a thrilling performance, is always relevant. But this is not a family film.

Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. The movie can prompt a chat with your older children about the impact of music and musicians over the years.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” runs 2 hours and 10 minutes. The film is rated R for language, nudity, sexual references and drug use. The film is streaming on Hulu.