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Hulu's New Billie Holiday Biopic Falls Short Of Capturing Her Real Story

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

DAVIES: Billie Holiday in 1956, revisiting her signature song "Strange Fruit," whose lyrics depict a lynching. The song is central to Hulu's new biopic, "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday." Our jazz critic and jazz film-follower Kevin Whitehead has this review.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: The movies have not been kind to Billie Holiday. In the 1935 Duke Ellington short "Symphony In Black," Holiday, at age 19, played a spurned woman, bounced to the studio floor by her unfaithful man in take after painful take. In the 1947 feature "New Orleans," she played a white opera singer's housemaid. Though in both those films she got to sing, too. In the 1972 biopic "Lady Sings The Blues," she was played by Diana Ross, who looked and sounded nothing like her. Worse, the story turned the last of her terrible husbands, Louis McKay, played by Billy Dee Williams, into a saintly figure who's always there for her.

Now comes Hulu's "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday," directed by Lee Daniels from a script by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. The best thing about it by far is singer and screen newcomer Andra Day in the lead. She carries the movie with conviction and looks kind of like the real Holiday, with those gardenias in her hair. She also catches Billie's later singing voice well.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY")

ANDRA DAY: (As Billie Holiday, singing) Oh, love me. Why not...

WHITEHEAD: Andra Day likewise replicates the croaky way Holiday spoke in her last years in the late 1950s. Never mind that she talks that way through the whole picture, as in this scene set in 1947.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY")

DUSAN DUKIC: (As Joe Glaser) I cut "Strange Fruit."

DAY: (As Billie Holiday) No, Joe. I want to sing the damn song, all right? The club advertises it. People pay good money to come here and hear me sing it.

DUKIC: (As Joe) I've told you a hundred times, people in high places don't like you singing that song.

DAY: (As Billie) And I've asked you over a hundred times, what people, Joe? What you looking at him for? [Expletive], I'm the one pays you.

DUKIC: (As Joe) The government.

WHITEHEAD: In some ways, "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday" offers a corrective to "Lady Sings The Blues." Louis McKay, played by Rob Morgan, is no angel in this picture. He's one in a line of her abusive mates. The film is frank about appalling ways she was treated by her men and by law enforcement, right down to her being arrested for heroin possession while lying on her hospital deathbed in 1959.

In "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday," federal agents wage a vigorous campaign for years to make her stop singing "Strange Fruit," that scathing portrait of lynching as a Southern tradition. There's more anecdotal than hard evidence of any such campaign. The film's big bad is federal anti-drug czar Harry Anslinger, played by Garrett Hedlund in a grim one-note performance. His Anslinger is even worse than the real one, who was happy to crack down on drug-using jazz musicians, Black ones in particular, a surefire way to make headlines.

The real Anslinger did take an interest in Holiday's case, but in the film, her drug busts are just leverage to make her stop singing that song. Evidently shirking his duties in Washington, movie Anslinger obsessively turns up at Holiday's New York gigs to glare at her from the audience, as if he hates music in general. Even his wife is a Holiday fan. Later, he harasses her in the hospital as she's dying.

In the film's 1940s, Anslinger instructs African American narcotics agent Jimmy Fletcher, played by "Moonlight's" Trevante Rhodes, to cozy up to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY")

TREVANTE RHODES: (As Jimmy Fletcher) Pardon me for asking, but why is that song so important to us?

GARRETT HEDLUND: (As Harry Anslinger) Hoover says it's un-American. You've heard those lyrics. They provoke people in the wrong way.

WHITEHEAD: There was a real Jimmy Fletcher, and he and Holiday came to be on friendly terms, despite their adversarial relationship. In the movie, Jimmy falls in love with her hard, and she with him, and they have a hot, long-lasting affair. It's pure poppycock, but Andra Day and Trevante Rhodes have good sexual chemistry onscreen, bringing some charm and romance to a mostly dreary narrative. In this scene, they're just getting to know each other before Billie finds out he's a narc.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY")

RHODES: (As Jimmy) Why don't you ever sing "Strange Fruit"?

DAY: (As Billie) "Strange Fruit." I got to be pretty high to sing that one.

RHODES: (As Jimmy) Never heard you sing it.

DAY: (As Billie) It's a song about important things, you know, things that are going on in the country. I don't think people know I care about those things. Most of my other songs just about love.

RHODES: (As Jimmy) Love is important, too, right?

WHITEHEAD: Later, after he's exposed, Jimmy shoots heroin with her one time, which somehow makes him flash back to her unhappy childhood, a narcotic mind-meld. Holiday once said she'd been asked to stop singing "Strange Fruit" during a weeklong stand at Philadelphia's Earle Theater in 1947, just before the drug bust that sent her to prison for a year. In the movie, a fed orders local cops to shut down her Philly show the second it starts when she defiantly opens with that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY")

DAY: (As Billie, singing) Southern trees.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Get her off that stage.

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, that didn't happen. She completed a week in Philly without incident. At worst, "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday" is as heedless of the facts as "Lady Sings The Blues" was, even restaging that movie's fictitious episode where Billie comes on the scene of a lynching down South, as if she needed to see it to truly sing it. As in "Lady Sings The Blues," she plays Carnegie Hall in 1948 with a big band and strings, not a quartet as in real life. And like the Diana Ross movie, this one invents a good and loving man who faithfully stands by her.

To be fair, biographical movies are entertainments, not history lessons. This is hardly the first biopic to invent stuff when the real story is dramatic enough. Made-up incidents can illustrate some higher truth about the power of a protest song or a singer's personal magnetism. But having Billie leave her band stranded down South in the middle of a tour is a low blow. She respected her fellow musicians too much for that.

Billie Holiday deserves better, a biopic that, say, shows how her voice changed over her quarter-century recording career, from girlish to mature to brittle, reflecting all that heartache and hard living. Then we'd have something closer to the real Billie Holiday story.

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday," which premieres on Hulu today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO LOVES YOU")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) Who loves you? Ask yourself the question, who loves you, sweetheart? And tell me who thinks of you a million times a day and who's blue and lonely, honey, when you're away? Say, who needs you, needs you every minute? Who's there for you from the start? Oh, who just longs for your caresses? You don't have to take three guesses. Who loves you, sweetheart?

DAVIES: On Monday's show, we speak with writer, performer and magician Derek DelGaudio. His new memoir recalls the days when he used his sleight-of-hand skills to cheat other players in a high-stakes private poker game. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLIE HOLIDAY'S "WHO LOVES YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 3, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous headline misspelled Billie Holiday's last name as Holliday.