Having been so deeply disappointed in Lady Sings the Blues, the Hollywoood biop about Billie Holiday from many years ago, I was excited about the new one,The United State vs. Billie Holiday. An excitement that quickly dissipated as I watched the movie. Once more, Hollywood got it wrong.
First off, literally wrong as it showed events that never happened—getting pulled off the stage by cops for singing Strange Fruit, for example. White audiences enthusiastically, requesting a song they certainly didn’t want to hear. Billie Holiday herself committed to singing the song over and over (a song, which incidentally, the movie implies she wrote, but she didn’t). Besides these unnecessary distortions, they, of course, highlighted drug addiction, physical abuse from men and sex. It’s Hollywood, after all, and they know where the cash register lives.
God forbid they show what it’s like to craft a song, what a complex relationship she had with Lester Young, how Bob Hope once stood up for in a club where she was being heckled, how she felt that drug addiction was a mental health issue, not a criminal one. They could have showed the tremendous pressures of being a black woman in a racist and sexist society, helping us feel what it would have been like touring the South with Artie Shaw’s band of white musicians, how excited she was to be invited to be in the movie New Orleans with her childhood idol Louis Armstrong and then disgusted when they refused to give her any other role but a black maid, how astonished she was to perform in Europe and get a dose of a more human treatment.
Instead, we got all the sensation and most people probably left the movie thinking, “She led such a depraved life” or “so sad and tragic— I’ll think about that for 15 seconds” or “well, she sure could sing.” She deserves so much more.
Then after that disappointment, I watched the 1946 film about Cole Porter Night and Day and here Hollywood got it wrong in the other direction, cutting out all the real hardship. “Yeah, everyone knew he was gay and married Linda as a front, but hey, it’s 1946, so we’ll just make it a big love story with Linda. And yeah, he fell off a horse relatively early in his career and was in constant pain for the next 27 years and had 34 unsuccessful operations and finally had a leg amputated, but we’ll just spend a few minutes on that and get back to sappy white singers singing his songs.”
Which are indeed an invaluable part of the Great American Songbook, but mostly when Billie or Ella sing them, when Coltrane or Keith Jarrett play them. Did their contribution to the jazz repertoire get any mention in the film? Of course not! The few fleeting black characters were—surprise! —servants and maids.
Hollywood, may I suggest not even trying to make a movie about a jazz musician? Bird was pretty terrible, as was Bolden.And don’t get me started on music education. Mister Holland’s Opus and Whiplash?!!! Give me a break. And Sister Act wasn’t much better.
Have I mentioned that a school parent is over a year into a project of making a film about my work in music education? I’ll give you a hint—we’re not sending it to Hollywood.