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Lady Sings The Blues (1972)
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.
Diana Ross ... Billie Holiday
Billy Dee Williams ... Louis McKay
Richard Pryor ... Piano Man
James T. Callahan ... Reg Hanley (as James Callahan)
Paul Hampton ... Harry
Sid Melton ... Jerry
Virginia Capers ... Mama Holiday
Yvonne Fair ... Yvonne
Isabel Sanford ... The Madame
Tracee Lyles ... The Prostitute
Ned Glass ... The Agent
Milton Selzer ... The Doctor
Norman Bartold ... The Detective #1
Clay Tanner ... The Detective #2
Jester Hairston ... The Butler
There is no question that no matter how extreme in the past or future Miss. Ross has been or will be (tantrums, bad albums, phoniness, bad publicity, touch me, don\'t touch me), she will always have this performance to look back on as a moment where everything worked perfectly.
The film is imperfect. Flawed. It could have been more realistic, more harrowing, and less hollywood-fied. Had it been, and had Motown not been so intent on proving itself as a major film force, she would have won the Oscar without question. The rumor had always been that in terms of voting it was \"this close\" as they say.
Even though she did not win, we are still left with a performance of depth, passion and layers that could only be described as magnificent in an experienced actress. In a neophyte, as Miss. Ross was at the time, it is stunning.
As a singer, She never before or since has sounded as good. The voice, while not really like Billie Holiday, just glows. Her musicality, intonation and idiomatic phrasing indicated a whole type of music she could have sung had she chosen too.
Watch it for her. It will make you think more kindly towards her the next time she, well, acts like Miss. Ross!
When this film opened, I was a 17 year old fan of Diana Ross. I thought her fabulous and the film great. Funny how time can change perspective and viewpoint so completely. Shortly thereafter, a local newscast interviewed several musicians who had worked with Billie Holiday and were picketing the theatre where \"Lady\" had debuted. One said that the film was an insult to her memory, and her true life story was far more tragic than the film had suggested. More importantly, he said that Billie\'s music had suffered most in the attempt to film her life. He said that Miss Ross had failed to capture the essence of Billie\'s music, and that this film had reduced Miss Holiday\'s standing as the most important Jazz singer who\'d ever lived to that of a mediocre pop vocalist. He implored everyone to check out the real Billie Holiday by purchasing some of her records. I had two immediate thoughts. One was, \"Hmm, I thought the film was pretty good, but this guy seems to know what he\'s talking about\". The other was, \"Billie Holiday made records?\" In fact, she made hundreds of records between 1935-59, but in over two hours of screen time, not one of them is even mentioned.
Prompted by the musician\'s suggestion and curiosity, I bought some Billie Holiday records and gave them a listen. That was the start of a life-long love of Jazz, and a complete reassessment of all that I knew and loved about popular music. As for the film, let\'s start with an early flaw. The opening credits are built around Diana Ross, as Billie Holiday, being arrested and booked for narcotics. The first thing we see is \"New York City – 1936\" in large letters across the screen; as such, the writers managed to commit a factual error within the first five seconds of the screenplay! Billie was first arrested in 1949, for which she spent one year in jail. In 1936, she was still playing small clubs in Harlem, and it is generally believed that she didn\'t touch heroin until the early 1940\'s. The film continues with so many factual mistakes that I could spend all the space allotted here just listing them, but what is most alarming to me today is the disproportionate importance that Louis McKay occupies in this piece of total fiction. McKay was Billie\'s second or possibly third husband. Her biographers agree that, had she lived, she most certainly would have divorced McKay and removed him from her life completely. He was an opportunist and a user, and was probably abusive. One of the ironies of her life is that, in a gross miscarriage of justice, McKay not only received the bulk of music royalties that went to her estate, he was allowed as \"special consultant\" to this film to nourish a portrait of himself that was overly flattering and historically ridiculous. His actual place in her life was merely as one in a long list of men who\'d contributed to the misery that was her later life. In the autobiography for which the film was named, Billie describes her first encounter with McKay. She said she found him literally lying in the gutter, and rescued him from a prostitute who was attempting to pick his pocket. Their paths did not cross again until many years later, when he wormed his way back into her life, and took charge of her affairs when she was most vulnerable. In short, he was not the glamorous and gallant figure depicted in the film, nor was she chronically defenseless. Popular legend has it that Billie Holiday once single-handedly beat up two redneck sailors who dared to tangle with her in a Harlem speakeasy - hardly the sniffling crybaby who lay crumpled in a corner waiting for Louis to rescue her, as portrayed in this film.
The film would have you believe that Billie started shooting heroin because she witnessed a lynching; one of the dramatic highpoints depicts Billie on the tour bus reflecting on the horrors of lynching while we hear snatches of her most famous song, Strange Fruit. For years after my first viewing of the movie I wondered why that song didn\'t have a bigger impact for me the first time I saw it. Now that I have acquired the DVD I know why – Billie\'s best song has been gutted. We hear the opening lines and the ending, but the middle verses have been eliminated. Gone is the most powerful imagery - \"Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Pastoral scene of the gallant South; the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth…then the sudden smell of burning flesh\" – these words are simply not there. No wonder I hardly noticed the song when I first saw the film.
This picture was made only 13 years after Lady Day\'s death. How could everybody associated with this film have totally forgotten what she stood for? Billie Holiday literally changed the way popular songs are sung, and therefore influenced every singer that came after her. I do not make this statement lightly. Many music critics and students agree that, before Billie, popular singers approached songs the same way that classical and opera singers always had; they sang the notes exactly as written, with no deviation from the written melody, no improvisation and, consequently, with little emotion or emphasis on feeling. Billie changed all that – which is why Frank Sinatra (for one) readily admitted that he\'d learned everything he knew about phrasing from listening to Billie\'s records. It is difficult in hindsight to appreciate Billie\'s impact on vocal style simply because she so totally changed the way songs are sung, and every singer who came after her, whether they realize it or not, has been influenced by her on some level. She made far too important a contribution to music to receive the careless historical rendering and empty dramatics proffered by this film.
The recent death of Richard Pryor prompted me to look at the 2005 DVD package of 1972\'s \"Lady Sings the Blues\", which proves the then-young comedian to be a fine actor in the meaty supporting role of Piano Man. Even though he was a master stand-up comic, it\'s still too bad he never pursued roles of a similar dramatic caliber since he obviously had the talent. Similarly, Diana Ross never fulfilled the promise of her big screen debut in the title role as legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915-59).
Bearing no physical and little vocal resemblance to Holiday, Ross somehow gets under her true-life character\'s skin much like Joaquin Phoenix does in \"Walk the Line\" or Jamie Foxx in \"Ray\". Thirty-three years have elapsed since I first saw this movie, and it is with a certain amount of regret that I report that Ross as an actress has not been anywhere near this good since then. Granted she only has three features under her belt, 1975\'s \"Mahogany\" reflected an ego run amok, and she was disturbingly miscast in 1978\'s \"The Wiz\". From the opening scene where she is suffering through heroin withdrawal in raw, harrowing detail to her sultrier nightclub performances, she manages to be incendiary by her sheer will. She is even convincing in the early scenes where she is barely a teenager. Her vocal performances really don\'t evoke Holiday\'s earthier style, though to Ross\'s credit, her vivid renditions of standards such as \"Mean to Me\", \"Fine and Mellow\" and \"Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)\" don\'t sound like Supremes redux either.
This achievement is all the more impressive since director Sidney J. Furie, a journeyman filmmaker at best, has surrounded Ross with an unwieldy rags-to-riches biopic that should have been edited down from its 144-minute running time. The screenplay - credited to Chris Clark, Suzanne De Passe and Terence McCloy (none of whom wrote a movie script before or since) based in part on Holiday\'s autobiography - plays fast and loose with the facts and piles on the clichés in true Oscar-baiting fashion. The drug-related scenes are powerful, though they eventually start to feel like condescending plot devices to make the viewer sympathize with Holiday for the persecution she experienced at the hands of abusive men and a bigoted society. Moreover, as Furie discloses on the accompanying audio commentary, the dialogue for several scenes is improvised by the actors, for example, the unnecessarily lengthy Club Manhattan sequence, where the lack of discipline becomes wearing.
Contrary to the fact that Holiday\'s true life story has been well documented and interest in her legacy increased, the filmmakers altered events and people in order to maintain interest from what they thought were mainstream audiences at the time. Consequently, the character of Louis McKay, Holiday\'s love interest and eventual husband, played with toothsome charm by Billy Dee Williams, synthesizes a lot of men who came into her life and helped shape her career. The dramatized results leave out key figures of the jazz world like saxophonist Lester Young, trombonist Jimmy Monroe to whom Holiday was married, and record producer John Hammond, as well as Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Teddy Wilson--all important colleagues and mentors during the period covered in the film. Instead, we are given Holiday\'s story as filtered through Ross\'s own story, an observation confirmed by Ross herself on the accompanying 2005 making-of featurette.
When the music is true to the period, it\'s quite wonderful, but composer Michel Legrand composed some gauzy, anachronistic interludes that sound like symphonic outtakes from his work on \"Brian\'s Song\". The costumes also have a Vegas revue feel, no surprise since designer Bob Mackie\'s flamboyant, early 1970\'s style is on full display here. For such an overlong movie, the ending feels quite truncated as newspaper clips are used to telegraph her eventual fate as Ross triumphantly sings her signature song, \"God Bless the Child\", in Carnegie Hall. Credit Motown mogul and Ross\'s Svengali, Berry Gordy, for having the fortitude, foresight and tenacity to oversee the project, and the DVD hammers that point in not only the overemphatic, only partially insightful commentary by Furie, Gordy and artists\' manager Shelly Berger but also the making-of featurette which features Ross looking strangely youthful and Williams at least looking his age. There are several deleted scenes included in the DVD with no additional commentary from Furie, none refurbished and all understandably excised from the final cut.
* Berry Gordy originally considered Four Tops\' lead singer Levi Stubbs for the role of Louis McKay, but the group was touring Europe at the time.
* Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson, and Lola Falana were early contenders for the role of Billie Holiday before Diana Ross demanded to Motown head Berry Gordy that she land the role.
* Dorothy Dandridge was to star in the role of Billie Holiday in an earlier proposed film version of the singer\'s autobiography, but died before the film was made.
* Average Shot Length = ~10.7 seconds. Median Shot Length = ~10.3 seconds.
* When the film was first suggested in the late 60s Abbey Lincoln was the initial casting for the role of Billie Holiday with Diana Sands as second choice. The project was revived a few years later with Diahann Carroll as a suggested lead but after discussions between Jay Weston and director Sidney J. Furie the role was offered to Diana Ross.
* \'Ketty Lester \' was considered for the role of Mama Holiday.
* According to Diana Ross, Richard Pryor personally instructed her on how to behave during the scenes of drug use.