Day mesmerises despite dissonant notes

Photo: supplied
Photo: supplied

Director:  Lee Daniels
Cast:  Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund, Leslie Jordan, Miss Lawrence, Adriane Lenox, Natasha Lyonne, Rob Morgan, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Evan Ross, Tyler James Williams

Rating:  (R16) ★★★ 


A very odd and, at times, extremely off-putting mash-up of musical biopic cliches, The United States vs Billie Holiday (Rialto) still gets a pass mark from me, partly because I’ve never met a film of its type that I haven’t liked to at least some degree, even if just as a guilty pleasure, but also it tackles its subject with such a weird combination of audacious experimentation and mundane, TV-style exposition that it’s fascinating to see it succeed and fail in equal measure, often at the same time.

Its success is in large part due to the great lead performance from singer and first-time actor Andra Day, who deservedly received an Oscar nod for this.

She’s mesmerising even as the dialogue she spouts is borderline dire, and is really the main reason to consider watching; you simply can’t take your eyes off her.

Utilising the age-old device of the interview flashback, the film tells of the last 10 years of Holiday’s life, as she deals with drug addiction, poor choices in men, harassment from the FBI, institutional racism, and, perhaps most egregiously, bad reviews from the critics.

Sadly, it offers no real insight into what made her a star or why her music was so special, preferring to dwell somewhat tastelessly on her personal misfortunes, which is what these films do anyway, although the bizarre centrepiece scene, a single-take journey through her subconscious mind, culminating in a stunning direct-to-camera rendition of Strange Fruit, is almost worth the price of admission.

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