Lady Day on Screen
What can the divided reception of The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021) tell us about the malleability of posthumous fame?
Keywords:Billie Holiday, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Posthumous fame, Biopics, Biography
Jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959) is a hugely influential figure. The impact of her vocal craft – particularly her distinctive timbre, adroit use of rubato, and compellingly emotional interpretations – can be traced across subsequent generations of singers (Szwed 2015). However, details of her turbulent personal life often overshadow explorations of her musical legacy. The most recent depiction of Lady Day’s life on screen, Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday, is arguably the latest retrospective to fall into this trap. However, this article argues that its mixed reception might be indicative of a small but significant shift in how Holiday’s life and work are understood. Drawing on critical reactions to the film, it explores the ways in which a narrative shift in storytelling around Holiday can be identified, and how this can contribute to our understanding of the malleability of the posthumous careers of iconic musicians.
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