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.
Lady Sings the Blues
Biography / Drama / Music
Lady Sings the Blues
Biography / Drama / Music
Born Elinore Harris, Billie Holiday had a difficult teen and young adulthood period, which included working in brothels, both as a cleaning woman and a prostitute, and being raped. Through this difficulty, she dreamed of becoming a jazz singer. She got her initial singing break when she applied at a Harlem club that was looking for a dancer, but where she got hired as a singer. There, she met and fell in love with the suave Louis McKay. After this initial break, Billie wanted her singing career to move to the mainstream clubs in downtown Manhattan. She took a risk when she agreed to be the lead singer for the Reg Hanley Band, a primarily white group, who convinced her that she would have to make her mark in regional tours before her Manhattan dream could happen. As Billie tried to advance her career, pressures of life, including being a black woman, led to her not so secret substance abuse (especially of heroin), not so secret because of her increasingly erratic behavior, both on stage and off. As those around her, including Louis, worked to support Billie emotionally to get off drugs, Billie faced other issues, such as open narcotic use being a criminal offense, which in combination with the effects of the heroin use itself could be Billie's downfall despite her singing talent. —Huggo
Uploaded By: FREEMAN
August 08, 2021 at 08:33 PM