United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021) movie review

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 poorly edited that I often didn’t know what I was watching, when it was set, or what the filmmakers wanted me to take out, other than that Holiday had a miserable childhood; that his adulthood was an equally miserable job filled with self-medication which made matters worse; and that despite everything, she was a cracker song performer who left classic recordings behind. Natasha Lyonne appears as Tallulah Bankhead, possibly Holiday’s lover, and instantly disappears. Years turn into other years. Much of the drug is taken.

Holiday’s tireless spirit is buried under misery porn which is kinda even by Daniels standards. At least “Precious” was daring. You could tell Daniels was going for a semi-satirical Todd Solondz vibe, where you were supposed to ask, “Is this supposed to be funny, and am I a bad joke?” There is no such tonal effrontery here. The film is as solemn as it gets, hammering nails into Billie Holiday’s ankles and wrists and lifting her onto the cross at the end. Daniels frames Holiday in a tight close-up and watches her sing as she gazes into the distance through glassy eyes. He crosses the song of the holidays on stage and being pushed backstage by a good criminal. He stares at her defeated, puffy face as she lies in a hospital bed with a catheter snaking out of her hospital gown, telling his friends about her liver failure. There doesn’t seem to be any dramatic focus in scenes like these other than reminding us once again, “Billie Holiday was a junkie, drugs are bad.”

For 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 funeral version that could very well appear in a trailer announcing a R- rated, dark and gritty reboot of, hell, who knows what cartoon property from the turn of the 20th century. Maybe Betty Boop. The movie itself looks tense, and not in an interesting way. It needed an intervention.

Now available on Hulu.

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