As seems to be the norm during the long winter months of awards season (even longer this year due to “you know what”), amongst all the dramas, original stories, and “based on true events” there can be found the biopic. A sub-genre that offers writers and filmmakers alike countless opportunities to delve into the history books and bring stories to life that we might not know, even if we are familiar with the subject themselves.
In this case, it’s the life of famed singer and performer Billie Holiday (Andra Day), a hugely influential figure in the fight against racism and inequality through the 1930s and up to her death in 1959, aged just 44. Her successes were quick and vast, securing record deals with Colombia and Decca Records and working with such heavyweights as Teddy Wilson, but like many performers over the centuries, pressures mounted and, in trying to combat it all, she turned to drugs which led to a short prison sentence.
That wasn’t the whole story as a point of contention for the police and FBI was her song “Strange Fruit“, a song that brought to the fore the horrific nature of lynching. So dramatic was the song and the fury surrounding its release that it was seen as both indecent and likely to incite more violence – but it couldn’t have been further from the truth. Years of battles with authorities would take their toll on her before her untimely death.
As you read through her work, career, and impact on a society that was slowly crumbling beneath her, you can see why her story is ripe for a cinematic retelling and why writer/director Lee Daniels was so desperate to tell it. He has been on similar territory before with previous films Precious and The Butler so this felt like another chance for him to shine as the storyteller and filmmaker many consider him to be but, sadly, it doesn’t quite work that way.
What follows, while powerful and important for so many reasons, falls flat, unsure of its focus and meandering through Holiday’s incredible moments – on stage and off. In his previous films, there was an edge and rawness that would have initially seemed the perfect assimilation for this one but in its laborious, slow form it just doesn’t connect.
It doesn’t cheapen Holiday‘s impact but that is more to do with Day’s miraculous performance than the filmmaking around her. From the very first moments through some incredible on-stage performances and the darker times in between, she is a revelation in an otherwise unrevelatory film, encapsulating Holiday’s strength and determination, as well as her immeasurable vocal talent, beautifully, oozing charisma and heavenly charm. It’s such a shame that her brilliance is ensconced in a lazy, underwhelming film that, while hitting the familiar notes of a biopic well enough, doesn’t illuminate the way the singer once did.
Biography, Drama | USA, 2020 | 15 | 27th February 2021 (UK) | Sky Cinema | eOne UK | Dir.Lee Daniels | Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Natasha Lyonne, Garrett Hedlund, Miss Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Da’Vine Joy Randolph