(0054X) Lady Sings the Blues

Lady Sings the BluesOctober 15, 1972 | 5 weeks at #1

Seen by Martin before? No

What did I expect? An enervating Billie Holliday biopic.

What did I get? Lady Sings the Blues has an unusual mix of strengths and weaknesses. At once exploitative and heartfelt, penetrating and glib, it lurched into new territory for black audiences, possibly with more filmmaking polish on hand than they realized. So despite the movie’s rather high quality, it was obliged to rely on strategies that are beneath it, and the whole isn’t really convincing. Lady might be most profitably approached as a pure work of fiction — by leaving the historical Billie out of it. Then it becomes a credible and resonant tableau of the black entertainment world in the 1930s and 1940s.

Lady Sings the Blues elevated Ross to the category of “great actress” while reducing Billie to the “mere” status of a biopic subject, something that very conspicuously did not happen when Angela Bassett played Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It? This may be unkind, but it’s important to couch praise of Ross (which she deserves) in its proper context. Lady adheres to a sturdy melodrama format that lends all of Ross’ non-breakdown sequences an insubstantial, fake quality. Ross’ rendition of “Strange Fruit” is preceded by her chance witnessing of a southern lynching, a juxtaposition that feels too pat, and her later frenzied confrontation with the KKK likewise lacks subtlety.

Diana Ross as Billie Holliday sounds like a match made in heaven, but it’s a poisoned chalice. While I’m not a Billie Holliday expert (my father was), Ross does a fine, soulful job with the songs, but her toothy countenance and spastic, rag-doll gyrations are difficult to reconcile with the substantial and composed woman pictured here. It’s impossible to fault Ross for her intentions, though, nor for her effort. Billie’s life behind the scenes was a trainwreck, and Ross gives the several harrowing scenes that Holliday’s heroin addiction necessitates her passionate all.

Furie punctuates the narrative with stately b/w stills in slow zoom, an effective, prestige-implying strategy that nevertheless fails to distract from Lady‘s want of narrative oomph. Williams and Pryor both do fine work, although Pryor in period garb can’t help but seem a bit odd, what with his later genius standup movies so vividly in mind.

What here smacks of 1972? The frankness of the drug scenes, plus the thrill of a big-deal Hollywood drama about black people.

IMDB score: 6.9

My score: 6

Director: Sidney J. Furie

Writers: Chris Clark, Suzanne De Passe, and Terence McCloy

Starring: Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, James Callahan, Paul Hampton, Sid Melton, Virginia Capers, Yvonne Fair, Isabel Sanford, Tracee Lyles, Ned Glass, Milton Selzer, Scatman Crothers

IMDB synopsis: Chronicles the rise and fall of legendary blues singer Billie Holiday. Her late childhood, stint as a prostitute, early tours, marriages and drug addiction are featured.

Get it at Amazon!

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