Lady Sings the Blues (1972)

by | Nov 15, 2005 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Lady Sings The Blues (1972)

Starring: Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, and Richard Pryor
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Video: Widescreen enhanced for 16:9
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Closed Captions: English
Extras: Commentary by Executive Producer Berry Gordy, Director Sidney
Furie and Artist Manager Shelly Berger; Behind The Blues: Lady Sings
The Blues; Deleted Scenes
Rating: ****

When “Lady Sings The Blues” was first released in 1972, critic Vincent
Canby pointed out that the facts of Billie Holiday’s life had been
“generalized.” This measure had been taken, he wrote, to protect the
privacy of those involved in Miss Holiday’s life who would not give
releases to the movie producers. As a result, he posited, the movie
suffered.

Today filmgoers would call this movie a biopic, and whether or not they
would agree with Canby probably depends on how much they already know
about Billie Holiday or how much they want to learn about her through
the film. Miss Holiday’s life is tortured and ends early, at age 44,
and the thread that holds together the film is the outstanding
performance by Diana Ross.  She gives a moving performance of
Strange Fruit, after viewers are given an opportunity to understand
what brought it to the surface of Holiday repertoire. Many other
Holiday numbers are performed well, including Fine and Mellow and What
a Little Moonlight Can Do. (Ross received an Academy Award nomination
for Best Actress in a Leading Role. In the DVD’s special features, the
viewer learns that she wanted to read her acceptance speech in the
event that she won, so that she could thank Executive Producer Berry
Gordy, not just for his work as Executive Producer of “Lady Sings The
Blues”, but for his hard work at Motown Records with so many of its
stars.)

Ross carries the film not only with the songs once sung by Miss
Holiday, performances which echo Billie Holiday’s style, but also with
the dramatic acting of someone who immerses herself fully in the role.
The opening scene of the movie captures Miss Holiday, strung out on
hard drugs, being locked into a padded cell in prison. No amount of
musical talent can carry the acting necessary in this scene, and Ross
rises to the occasion with all the anguish of a tormented character.

In the end, though, perhaps the question of whether this film is a
classic can find an answer in how successfully it makes the very
painful private life of Billie Holiday – which begins in poverty and
prostitution – worth watching. Her talent is undeniable and she goes
out in glory, with a much anticipated performance at Carnegie Hall. The
painful becomes tolerable through her public performances.

With the outstanding acting and singing of Diana Ross, this movie does
have lasting qualities. Most of the musicians who have movies made
about them have unhappy private lives and in this film, there is no
exception that Miss Holiday deserves a lot of notice for her musical
gifts–even if she couldn’t pull her personal life together. A word to
viewers of films like this is to not let artists’ unhappy lives color
an appreciation of their art. If one can possibly excuse some of the
genre treatments of Billie Holiday and her colleagues, then there is
much to recommend this film.

– Patricia Rimmer
 

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