Movie review

The United States vs. Billie Holiday movie review (2021)

And what, the reader may rightly ask, does any of this have to do with “Strange Fruit”? It’s hard to say. The film is so poorly structured and ineptly edited that I often wasn’t sure what I was looking at, when it was taking place, or what the filmmakers wanted me to take away, other than that Holiday had a wretched early life; that her adulthood was an equally miserable slog, filled with self-medicating that made things worse; and that despite it all, she was a crackerjack song interpreter who left some classic recordings behind. Natasha Lyonne shows up as Tallulah Bankhead, Holiday’s maybe-lover, and disappears instantly. Years bleed into other years. Much dope is shot. 

Holiday’s indefatigable spirit gets buried under misery porn that’s a bit much even by Daniels’ standards. At least “Precious” was audacious. You could tell Daniels was going for a semi-satirical, Todd Solondz-like vibe, where you were supposed to ask, “Is this meant to be funny, and am I a bad person for laughing?” There’s no such tonal cheekiness here. The film is solemn as can be, hammering nails into Billie Holiday’s ankles and wrists and raising her up on the cross at the end. Daniels frames Holiday in a tight closeup and watches her sing as she stares into the middle distance through glazed eyes. He crosscuts between Holiday singing onstage and getting shtupped backstage by a smooth criminal. He stares at her defeated, puffy face as she lies in a hospital bed with a catheter snaking from her hospital gown, talking to her pals about how her liver has failed. There seems to be no dramatic objective to scenes like these other than to remind us yet again, “Billie Holiday was a junkie, drugs are bad.” 

Over the course of two hours that feel like three, “All of Me” keeps loops in and out of the soundtrack in varied arrangements, including (at the end) a funereal version that may very well show up in a trailer advertising an R-rated, dark-and-gritty reboot of, hell, who knows which early 20th century cartoon property. Maybe Betty Boop. The film itself seems strung out, and not in an interesting way. It needed an intervention.

Now available on Hulu.

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