Andra Day is so good as Billie Holiday in Lee Daniels’ ‘The United States Vs. Billie Holiday’ that you are with her every step of the way. She gives her all to make sure that the Billie Holiday we see here is as full, vivid and sympathetic, even if the Billie Holiday she portrays here is vaguely written and cartoonish.You can kind fo feel sorry for her, and I guess for Holiday. What the film doesn’t capture is what made Holiday tick – we see she is a great singer but we don’t see her and her artistry. What propelled her to her art?
But I guess that’s not what Daniels was interested at. The screenplay, written by Suzan Lori Parks, shows Holiday as a victim of racial discrimination, and was targeted because this is a singer who insisted on singing ‘Strange Fruit,’ a song about lynching. They said it incites violence – of the wrong kind.
The film also shows Holiday wallowing in misery – we never see her triumphs as a singer, besides fleeting shots of adoring concert goers and autograph seekers. I wanted to see more of her relationships – what drew her to Tallulah Bankhead? Holiday was pansexual becfore that word had any real meaning, yet that fact was side tracked and treated just in passing. There is so muich wasted opportunity here – we should have seen a legend, not a sick drug addict. Day’s performance is raw and inspiring, and it may be worth your trip, but I don’t know if it’s worth staying.
I have always been attracted to artists who are also tortured souls. In my opinion, these are the true artists – the ones whose talents are so immense they aren’t able to contain it, and they would need other things in their lives to make themselves ‘whole,’ and that could be sex, drugs, rock and roll lifestyle. Billie Holiday fits that category to a T. When she sings you see everything in life in her voice, the beauty, the joy, the sorrow, and the pain – all of it. When being compared to Ella Fitzgerald, for example: ‘When Ella sings ‘My man’s gone now,’ you feel her man going to the store to get milk, but when Billie sings, it you see her man leaving, suitcase in hand, and you feel her pain.’ No truer words are spoken.
James Erskine captures all of that in his documentary. It helps that he has access to the interview tapes of Linda Kuehl. Kuehl sought to interview people about Holiday, and she died before its publication (There is a bit of a mystery to that too) Erskine documented some of her writing, and drew from numerous taped interviews, and we get a glimpse of Holiday’s life – how she was a prostitute at age 13, and lived the fast life – drugs, wild sex escapades with both man and women. It also chronicled her bad choices in men, how they used her till the very end of her life.
Her artistry is highlighted too. If you are not touched by ‘Strange Fruit,’ then you and I cannot be friends. And the clip from London of her singing ‘Don’t Explain’ months before her passing will break your heart into a million pieces. This film would be great for those wanting to get to know her life, but even for Billiphiles like me you’ll get a lot.
Color me impressed. When I first heard this album, I had no idea who Rebecca Ferguson was. Apparently, she was a contestant in the UK run of X-Factor from 2010, and had some semi-success as an R & N singer/songwriter. And apparently, she released an album of songs as a tribute to Billie Holiday. Interesting, as this year is Holiday’s 100th birthday year, and there have been a bunch of people paying tribute, and I wonder if she knew. In this album “Lady Sings The Blues,” we get a great singer interpreting wonderful songs. I get a sense that she did not just randomly sing these songs. I sense a singer who understands the material. At the same time, there is no mimicking, or copying Holiday, She puts her own stamp in her interpretations that at once the songs sound modern. The style veers more pop than jazz, but with jazz stylings. I love the arrangements – they pay tribute to the original orchestrations but infused with very modern elements. Listen to her version of “Stormy Weather,” it’s a mixture of Chaka Khan and Beyonce but neither referencing either. This album is a pleasant and wonderful surpris