“It was called ‘the United States of America versus Billie Holiday,’” wrote the jazz legend in her 1956 autobiography, “and that’s just the way it felt.” Holiday’s 1947 conviction, when she was sentenced to a year and a day for possession of narcotics, was just one chapter in a sustained campaign against the singer, whose performances of Abel Meeropol’s anguished, anti-lynching ballad Strange Fruit had become a lightning rod for civil rights awareness and activism.
Holiday’s steadfast refusal to stop singing that song was perhaps the greatest indication of her indomitable spirit, forged in the fires of a tough-as-nails upbringing that saw her survive horrific childhood abuse to become a superstar in an age of often deadly racial and sexual prejudice. Yet in Precious director Lee Daniels’s timely but muddled biopic, which boasts a revelatory performance by Andra Day, the authorities’ harassment of Holiday is given a perverse romantic twist in the shape of a federal agent ordered to spy on the star.
Trevante Rhodes, who proved such a mesmerising presence in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, is Jimmy Fletcher, the handsome undercover narc assigned to infiltrate Holiday’s inner circle, gathering evidence of her drug use. Yet even when Jimmy’s occupation is revealed, the singer and her entourage continue to tolerate his presence. Indeed, Jimmy’s sympathetic attentions are starkly juxtaposed with Holiday’s otherwise abusive relationships with men – the partners, husbands and managers who often seem more like pimps. Fletcher may have been instructed by racist war on drugs chief Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) to take Billie down, but he finds himself sharing both her confidence and her bed, even shooting up heroin with her to prove his allegiance.
The speculative relationship at the heart of Pulitzer-winning playwright/novelist Suzan-Lori Parks’s script appears to be rooted in a passing claim by Johann Hari (author of the film’s credited source book Chasing the Scream) that “the man Anslinger sent to track and bust Billie Holiday had, it seems, fallen in love with her”. Certainly Fletcher was on record as feeling conflicted about his role in Holiday’s legal travails, and she later wrote to him, saying: “Most federal agents are nice people … Maybe they would have been kinder to me if they had been nasty; then I wouldn’t have trusted them enough to believe what they told me.” Yet foregrounding this presumed romance seems bizarre when the verifiable details of Holiday’s life are so compelling, particularly since the spectre of a singer being silenced for performing a quietly incendiary song clearly has drama to spare.
Like Sidney J Furie’s uneven 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues, for which Diana Ross received a deserved best actress Oscar nomination, Daniels’s problematic movie – which careens wildly between stagey interviews, hallucinatory horrors and audacious musical set pieces – rests squarely upon the shoulders of a singer turned actor who breathes cinematic life into a musical icon. Day really is a dazzling screen presence, capturing the poise and raw power of her subject, whether performing on stage with an orchid in her hair and bandages around her bruised ribs, or delivering a slap between numbers in a heady whirlwind of world tour highs and lows. As James Erskine’s recent documentary Billie demonstrated, Holiday transcended the trite label of “victim”, and Day invests her performance with a vibrant strength that cannot be quelled, even in the most appalling circumstances.
Top-notch production design by Daniel T Dorrance (aided by a monochrome-to-colour editing device reminiscent of The Night They Raided Minsky’s), eye-catching costume work by Paolo Nieddu and handsome cinematography by Andrew Dunn (whose credits include Daniels’s Precious and The Butler) lend a glossy sheen to the often chaotic proceedings. But this is Day’s show all the way, and her performance remains the film’s strongest suit.