Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There have been several films and plays made about the life and work of the great jazz singer Billie Holiday, who died in 1959 aged just 44. Lady Sings the Blues from 1972 earned Diana Ross an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, while Audra McDonald received unanimous critical praise for her performance as her in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill a few years ago. The latest actress to play her on screen is Andra Day in the Lee Daniels-directed The United States vs. Billie Holiday. The film follows Holiday at the height of her fame and explores two story strands that speak to the African American experience in the 1940s; the first concerns her role at the center of the ‘War on Drugs’ wherein Holiday – a long-time heroin addict – becomes a target for the federal government and is seduced by and has a long-term relationship with narcotics agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), who was taking part in an undercover sting operation against her. The second concerns the effort of similar authorities to stop her performing the controversial song “Strange Fruit,” an anti-racism song written in response to the lynchings of young black men in the 1930s.

As one would expect, the soundtrack for The United States vs. Billie Holiday concentrates mostly on period songs, which are performed in character by Day as Holiday. These include classics such as the aforementioned “Strange Fruit,” “Lover Man,” “God Bless the Child,” and “Lady Sings the Blues,” the latter of which is arguably her signature song. In addition to these standards, the soundtrack also includes a handful of new original songs, including “Tigress & Tweed” co-written by Day with Raphael Saadiq, and “Break Your Fall” written by Warren Oak Felder and Coleridge Tillman, plus a new track by Charlie Wilson, formerly the lead vocalist of the 1970s R&B and funk group The Gap Band. “Tigress & Tweed” was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Song, and was on the shortlist for the Academy Awards, but missed out on a final nomination there. All the songs are of course excellent, and will especially appeal to anyone with an affinity for classic blues, jazz, and early R&B.

The score for The United States vs. Billie Holiday is by the 32-year-old Los Angeles-born composer and pianist Kris Bowers. Bowers has really begun to make a mainstream name for himself in recent years off the back of film scores like Green Book, and TV works such as When They See Us, Dear White People, Mrs. America, and the massively popular Netflix series Bridgerton. Bowers studied at Juilliard, and in 2011 won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition, during which he met and became unofficially mentored by the late great Aretha Franklin; it was Franklin’s agent who got Bowers his first scoring gig, the 2013 documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, and effectively launched his career from there. Bowers is a classy, expressive musician, and this translates into his film work too; for The United States vs. Billie Holiday Bowers says he intentionally avoided writing a jazz and blues score, and instead wrote a series of gorgeously-textured pieces for piano and orchestra which, as the composer explains in an interview with Tim Grieving for NPR, is intended to juxtapose against the Holiday songs in the film, and express the character’s interior instead.

The score is built mostly around a couple of main themes, the foremost of which is “Billie’s Waltz,” in which a dance-like melody is expressed as a classical waltz for solo piano, augmented with lovely rich chords that move between strings and oboes. The melody for the waltz actually appears to be based on one heard in the popular 1931 standard song “All of Me” by Seymour Simons and Gerald Marks, which Day performs in the film, and which also features as an instrumental later in the score, arranged for jazzy pianos and lush, emotionally poignant strings. A secondary theme for Billie runs through much of the rest of the score, with cues like “Don’t Cause a Fuss” and “Walk in the Park/Levy Frames Billie” offering more soft and tender writing for strings and piano, each imbued with a deep emotional quality and a sense of the sadness that permeated much of her life.

Contrasting this are cues like “Great Night” and “Carnegie Hall,” which underscore the great professional triumphs of Billie’s life with a light, magical touch in the strings, and a warmth to the piano writing that occasionally reminds me of Alan Silvestri’s Forrest Gump. “Tallulah” is a wryly amusing, spiky, jazzy piano piece representing Tallulah Bankhead, the controversial actress from the classic Hollywood era with whom Billie is alleged to have had a passionate sexual relationship. “Judge’s Ruling” is a darker piece, more serious in tone, with the strings and piano playing more ominous material to underscore the legal challenges in Holiday’s life. Later, “Jimmy’s Mistake/Lie to Her” has a terrific thriller sound featuring two-tone piano chords, the deeply sonorous set against the lightly chilling, offset by ground basses and con legno string slaps, all adding to an overall sense of tension and anxiety.

“Lynching” is one of the more fascinating cues, as it sees Bowers taking extracts from Billie’s theme and framing them as a wistful and dream-like remembrance of a lynching she saw as a child in Maryland; the beauty of the music here gives the horrific memories a peculiar, off kilter emotional tone, while the expressive and florid string writing in the final minute of the cue is dramatic and poignant. “Paint My Nails” also has a sense of melancholy darkness to it, while the almost imperceptible pizzicato lines in the second half of the cue give it a little sense of danger and instability. The conclusive “You Hate Her” offers a warm, moving final statement of Billie’s theme that is really lovely.

The score album is only short – a hair under 20 minutes in total – but when you combine this with the soundtrack album you are left with a terrific hour of music which goes some way to capturing the enduring appeal of this most iconic of American singers, and the emotional and political turmoil that surrounded her for far too much of her too-short life. It’s to Kris Bowers’s credit that he was able to make any sort of score-related musical statement in a film which is so deeply concerned with Holiday’s voice and the iconic songs she sang, and to which the score must inevitably play second fiddle. In just under 20 minutes Bowers somehow gave Billie Holiday’s life – her great performances, her legal and political issues, and her personal struggles – depth and nuance, clarity, and directness, through music which is emotionally satisfying and tonally approachable. Bowers is a film music rising star, and I’m looking forward to everything he does next.

Buy the United States vs. Billie Holiday soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Don’t Cause a Fuss (1:22)
  • Great Night (1:09)
  • Billie’s Waltz (3:12)
  • Tallulah (0:57)
  • Judge’s Ruling (1:38)
  • Jimmy’s Mistake/Lie to Her (1:08)
  • Carnegie Hall (1:29)
  • Lynching (3:08)
  • Walk in the Park/Levy Frames Billie (1:12)
  • All of Me (2:08)
  • Paint My Nails (1:10)
  • You Hate Her (0:44)
  • All of Me (written by Seymour Simons and Gerald Marks, performed by Andra Day) (3:35)
  • Strange Fruit (written by Lewis Allan, performed by Andra Day) (3:26)
  • Tigress & Tweed (written by Raphael Saadiq and Andra Day, performed by Andra Day) (3:11)
  • The Devil & I Got up to Dance a Slow Dance (written by Jamie Hartman, Warren Oak Felder, Coleridge Tillman, Charlie Wilson, performed by Charlie Wilson feat. Sebastian Kole) (3:21)
  • Solitude (written by Duke Ellington, Irving Mills and Edgar De Lange, performed by Andra Day) (3:01)
  • Break Your Fall (written by Warren Oak Felder and Coleridge Tillman, performed by Andra Day) (2:20)
  • I Cried for You (written by Gus Arnheim, Arthur Freed and Abe Lyman, performed by Andra Day) (2:40)
  • Ain’t Nobody’s Business (written by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins, performed by Andra Day) (3:03)
  • Them There Eyes (written by Maceo Pinkard, William Tracey, and Doris Tauber, performed by Andra Day) (2:49)
  • Lady Sings the Blues (written by Billie Holiday and Herbie Nichols, performed by Andra Day) (3:15)
  • Lover Man (written by Roger Ramirez, Jimmy Davis, and Jimmy Sherman, performed by Andra Day) (3:00)
  • Gimme a Pigfoot and Bottle of Beer (written by Wesley Wilson, performed by Andra Day) (2:50)
  • God Bless the Child (written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr., performed by Andra Day) (2:27)

Running Time: 19 minutes 24 seconds – Score
Running Time: 39 minutes 07 seconds – Soundtrack

Lakeshore Records (2021) – Score
Warner Records (2021) – Soundtrack

Music composed by Kris Bowers. Conducted by Fabrizio Mancinelli. Orchestrations by Jonathan Beard, Edward Trybek and Henri Wilkinson. Recorded and mixed by Scott Michael Smith, Jeff Gartenbaum and Stephen Kaye. Edited by Jen Monnar. Album produced by Kris Bowers and Salaam Remi.

  1. Sheng-Yuan Lynch
    April 15, 2021 at 12:15 am

    You should review Junkie’s score for Zack Snyder’s Justice League, been a long-time reader of your fabulous score reviews and I can’t help but wonder what your thoughts are on that one.

    • April 15, 2021 at 9:42 am

      I’m intentionally not reviewing that score. I don’t have the strength of will to sit through all four hours of it.

      • Sheng-Yuan Lynch
        April 15, 2021 at 6:17 pm

        Have you at least heard some of it? If so do you like what you hear?

      • Sheng-Yuan Lynch
        April 15, 2021 at 6:18 pm

        Have you at least heard some of it? And do you like what you hear?

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