*MOVIE RECAP: THE UNITED STATES VS BILLIE HOLIDAY

At first glance, this movie had the makings of a powerful story — sadly, it did not live up to my expectations. 

The United States vs. Billie Holiday takes its name straight out of the US government’s prosecution case of Billie Holiday, and it is based on the 2012 non-fiction book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari.

Decades have passed since Billie Holiday’s death. Yet, it seems like we still do not have a complete grasp and understanding of how important and influential she was in our culture, not just musically but also on civil rights activism. She died when she was only 44 years old. Suffering indignity after indignity and humiliated by her own government, handcuffed to a hospital bed as she was dying. 

At the center of the story, there is the song Strange Fruit. The song became controversial in the late 30s and 40s for being a protest song to the lynching of Black Americans, and it is considered to be the launching point in the awakening of the civil rights movement. The song drew the attention of the US government, most notably, the attention of a government agent and known racist Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), who was the first US official to declare war on drugs; targeting minorities and artists. Demonizing blacks and Jazz musicians as drug users and bad influences on the so-called authentic American culture.

Anslinger was the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and launched what has become known as the original version of the US war on drugs in the early part of the 20th century. One of Anslinger’s initial targets was Billie Holiday. He was obsessed with taking Billie Holiday down, primarily for her activism and defiance — but also as a symbolic gesture to any other potential civil rights activists out there. 

They used every tool at their disposal to destroy her life and career. They tried to censor her in multiple ways, even went as far as to block and deny her a cabaret license, which was crucial for performers; they needed a cabaret permit to perform at live music venues in those days. 

In this movie, we see how Aisnlinger assigns an undercover agent to infiltrate Billie Holiday’s inner circle to report and keep tabs on her. This undercover agent, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), becomes emotionally and romantically involved with Holiday.

The weird thing is that apart from Johann Hari’s book, there isn’t much verifiable evidence about this love affair between Billie Holiday and Jimmy Fletcher — and there seems to be an evident exaggeration of this story by this movie’s director Lee Daniels.

Andra Day is outstanding here; she Portrays Billie Holiday convincingly. Still, the highlight of this movie for me was the soundtrack along with Andra Day’s performance of Billie Holiday’s music. She actually sings all the songs herself and captures the essence of Billie Holiday’s signature sound.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a movie that comes across as messy, cluttered, and all over the place. There is way too much focus on the romance between Fletcher and Holiday. Their love affair gets in the way of the story a bit. I wanted to see more about Holiday and her band members and the relationship dynamics between them. There was a powerful story here to be told. Unfortunately, this movie missed a huge opportunity to convey the core story of Billie Holiday’s life and struggles. And on top of all that, it also wasted away Andra Day’s top-notch performance.

Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿

The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2020).

*MOVIE RECAP: NOMADLAND

Nomadland is a beautiful piece of cinema. A haunting film that feels like it is part-fictional film and part-documentary.

Based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Jessica Bruder about a new economic sector of primarily middle-aged and older people who have taken to the road as modern-day nomads — they live their lives out of their vans, campers, and cars. They follow seasonal work, like farms, restaurants, amazon warehouses, and recreational areas.

Living like nomads, going from place to place, as a form of self-sufficient living for these people, they find low-wage work that allows them to live and support themselves. For some, this nomadic lifestyle is their preferred way of living. There is a sense of freedom for them while they get to see the country and make friends along the way. But for most of these nomads, this lifestyle is the only chance for any meaningful life and the only option to support themselves.

Fern (Frances McDormand) is a fictional character who is grieving the recent loss of her husband. They lived in a company town, where all businesses and homes are owned by one company. When the company decides to stop operations and eliminate its entire workforce, all of the town residents are left jobless and have no choice but to relocate. There is a sad and tragic reality with these types of company towns built entirely around corporations and factories. When these companies folded or left town, entire cities were disseminated, leaving their population with nothing.

Fern abruptly goes from a comfortable life to hitting the road and joining these communities of nomads. She remains positive throughout her ordeal while maintaining that “she is not homeless, she is houseless.”She joins and befriends an established nomad culture who also goes from town to town looking for work. Real-life nomads featured heavily in this film, like Bob Wells.

Frances McDormand is exceptional here; Her most intense scenes are when she is all alone with no dialogue. She holds and commands the screen like no other.

Nomadland is an unapologetic modern American Western that shines a light and exposes a way of life in the United States. It is a framing device to the economic realities of the working-class people of this country and the failures of the American Dream. My only issue with the film is that it doesn’t really show all the intricacies and the everyday challenges of the nomadic lifestyle. Nevertheless, this film is an outstanding achievement by Director Chloe Zhao — capturing a powerful story of survival, grief, and the fragility of time and our human existence.

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

Nomadland (2020). Streaming on HULU.

*TV SERIES RECAP: HIGH FIDELITY (Season 1)

First of all, I am a purist when it comes to original content, so it is essential to emphasize how much I dislike reboots or remakes…. I get the sense sometimes that Hollywood is hitting rock bottom when it comes to creating original content; however, this TV version of High Fidelity was a pleasant surprise. Based on the High Fidelity novel by Nick Hornby, which was released in 1995 and made into a well-received film in 2000 starring John Cusack.

Gender roles are reversed for the TV version: The main character Rob is now short for Robyn, played by Zoe Kravitz. Rob owns Championship Vinyl in Crown Heights Brooklyn, a small but well-curated record store with only two employees. The story revolves around Rob revisiting her top 5 heartbreaks while tracking down her former lovers and attempting to make sense of where things went wrong in those past relationships. Zoe Kravitz shines here; in terms of owning this character — in her scenes, she comes across as natural, organic, and very charismatic —Which is a significant difference from John Cusack’s Rob.

In the movie version, Rob is not as likable as the TV version of Rob. Kravitz plays a more empathetic, warm, and down-to-earth version of this character that feels more grounded in reality. She is a hell of a lot more open-minded and less judgmental than the movie Rob…. and although TV Rob has an eclectic and well-cultivated music taste — she doesn’t care about how well curated your music collection is. She is open to different types of musical tastes. Zoe Kravitz’s mom Lisa Bonet was also one of the stars of the movie version, which is a cool connection here.

The loud, opinionated, and annoying Championship Vinyl employee Jack Black played in the movie version is now Cherise, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Both versions share similar characteristics, but Cherise’s character development was a bit slow…there is an air of mystery about her, which I am sure will be further explored in the second season. The other record store employee Simon is played by David H. Holmes, who is more reserved and thoughtful about his opinions. The chemistry between the two Championship Vinyl employees and Rob is excellent.

Brooklyn hipster life is depicted beautifully here. The vibe and tone of Crown heights feel lively, with people walking around in the background, things happening all over. The whole place is teeming with life. The local Bodega and the local dive bar are both featured prominently, which are essential staples of New York City living. Rob’s state of mind is often displayed through music, showing us where she stands emotionally at that particular moment. The scene when she is walking home from the club after her birthday celebration while Frank Ocean’s Nikes play in the background fits perfectly with Rob’s emotional state. Also, showing her messy apartment as a projection of the disorder in her personal life complemented the narrative well — Rob eating cereal like a broke college student is another display of the emotional chaos in her life — she is supposed to be a business owner, and her surroundings do not really scream serious small business owner.

Considered just on its terms, High Fidelity is a well-made music-centric, progressive love story that is both moving and entertaining. As I binged on this show, I could not help getting a bit nostalgic and appreciate the small things this lockdown has taken from all of us who live, work, and play in New York City.

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

High Fidelity (Season 1). Streaming on HULU