Judge Maurice Cobbs shall get, and them that's not shall lose...
"If you copy, it means you're working without any real feeling. No two people on earth are alike, and it's got to be that way in music or it isn't music."—Billie Holiday
Biopics are never very easy to produce successfully; the constraints of time and story structure often demand that much of the subject's life be trimmed away even as the filmmakers attempt to present a well-rounded portrait of a life that has, in one way or another, influenced countless other lives. Regrettably, more often than not they do not succeed, either displeasing those in the know by failing to present their subject with accuracy, or failing to engage the interest of those who are not well-versed on the subject but are merely seeking an evening's entertainment.
Arguably, only a handful of biopics have managed to strike a balance between those two concerns; most tend to dispose of historical accuracy in favor of dramatic convention, and so it is left to the actor to convey the spirit and personality of the figure that they are portraying. Some actors rely (quite successfully) on mimicry; others find themselves more concerned with capturing the essence of their subject than with outright imitation. Lady Sings the Blues definitely falls into the latter category.
Facts of the Case
Lady Sings the Blues is the highly-fictionalized story of the tragic life and groundbreaking career of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday (Diana Ross, Mahogany) through her harrowing childhood, self-destructive addiction to heroin, and turbulent romance with gambler Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams, Brian's Song).
Lady Sings the Blues, like many enjoyable biopics, has little to do with presenting fact and everything to do with presenting the essence of a life. It has been both rightly and unfairly reviled by passionate fans of Holiday's music as being highly fictionalized—and so it is, just as Amadeus, Funny Girl, and St. Louis Blues also use seeds of fact to grow fanciful tales of their respective subjects' lives. It is also true that Diana Ross has little in common with Billie Holiday; their singing styles are markedly different, and Ross is far too slender and beautiful to believably imitate Holiday; to her credit, she does not try.
What she does do is turn in a remarkable performance, not necessarily as the Billie Holiday, but as "Billie Holiday," the character created for Berry Gordy's ambitious project, which unfortunately loses its identity along the way. The film is never sure what it wants to be, and the end result suffers for it, despite the critical acclaim heaped upon the film on its release. Lady Sings the Blues was nominated for five Academy Awards, including a nod for Ross herself as Best Actress, but lost in every category (she would, however, take home two Golden Globes).
Lady Sings the Blues wastes no time and pulls no punches; we are immediately thrust into a gritty black-and-white montage of Holiday being booked into a New York jail, set to the opening strains of Michel LeGrand's apocalyptic score. The first few minutes of Ross's performance as Holiday show her haggard, disheveled, manic—writhing in a straightjacket, confined to a padded cell, screaming inhumanly in the thrall of her addiction. From there, flashback scenes show us how she landed in such a sorry state, beginning with her rape by a drunk at the age of 14. It effectively sets the stage for what is to come. Director Sidney J. Furie brings the pain…by the truckload…but spends so little time exploring the mystique of Billie Holiday, the incredible spell that she cast by bringing so much emotion into her music and successfully transmitting it to her audience, that you wonder if he'd ever actually heard of her before taking on this project. Then again, a brief overview of Furie's filmography—which includes the equally cliché-ridden and factually-challenged stinker Gable and Lombard—goes a long way towards perhaps explaining some of the choices made during this production.
The movie's focus on soap-opera romance can further be attributed to Motown mogul Berry Gordy's desire to create a hit, a blockbuster romance as a vehicle for Diana Ross. Back in the fifties, when the idea of a Holiday biopic had first been considered, both Lana Turner and Ava Gardner had been considered for the role; later, Dorothy Dandridge was set to star in a Holiday movie but died before the film could be made. Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson, and Lola Falana were all contenders for this role, but Gordy's passion to make Diana Ross a movie star and create a film with a primarily black cast that would find crossover appeal eventually decided the course of the production: when the movie went over budget (at two million dollars, it was already the most expensive movie starring a black cast ever made), Gordy even raised the money to finish it himself. It was a risky move for everyone involved, but one that eventually paid off spectacularly. Although Holiday fans held firm to their displeasure ("She was fine when she was in the Supremes," groused famed jazzman Rahsaan Roland Kirk, "but why did she have to go and ruin my Lady Day dreams?"), Lady Sings the Blues succeeded beyond all expectations, becoming a smash hit and a critical darling—"This was one of the great performances of 1972," declared Roger Ebert. Of course, he was referring to Diana Ross, but he would have done as well to have noted the two other standout actors in the film, two stunning breakout performances: Richard Pryor's incredible dramatic turn as the ill-fated and lovesick Piano Man, and Billy Dee Williams as he redefined urban cool as ultra-suave gambler Louis McKay, Holiday's long-suffering love interest, earning him instant stardom as "the black Clark Gable." Together, these three take what might otherwise have been a dreadfully predictable and boring mess and shape it into something watchable.
The DVD, at least, is certainly watchable—a good, crisp widescreen transfer combined with rich colors add up to a dazzling presentation; viewers have the choice of somewhat subdued but balanced 5.1 digital sound or the original mono, for those who like to kick it old-school. The deleted scenes aren't very engaging (except for the one in which Billy Dee goes all Superfly on the drug-dealing bandleader), and the commentary is a little too self-congratulatory for my taste, but hey—considering everything that Gordy and Furie went through to get this puppy made, I guess they've earned that. And winding up the special features is a rather expansive "making of" retrospective documentary featurette.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although I certainly would not expect a biopic to be pedantic about presenting the details of its subject's life, it does seem odd that so much of this life is left, as it were, on the cutting-room floor. The film spends no time at all on Holiday's titanic influence on the jazz scene of the '30s and '40s—a terrible oversight, and one that might have brought a bit of perspective as to why Holiday is still one of the most influential figures in pop music history. Major professional associations—with music legends like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, and Teddy Wilson—and personal relationships (Billie was married three times, but her marriage to McKay is the only one presented in the film) are curiously absent from the screenplay. Most of the important figures in Lady Day's life are condensed into amalgams, and in fact, much of Holiday's career takes a backseat to the melodramatic mish-mash of half-true personal drama (let us remember that this story is based on an "autobiography" that Holiday sneered at and even claimed never to have read); one often wonders, while watching such an film, why the writers thought that the real story was not interesting enough to hold its audience's attention.
Granted, we must consider the possibility that they found the actual facts too depressing to weave a palatable film story from them—we are, after all, talking about a life that ended while she was being arrested for possession of drugs while on her deathbed—yikes! Perhaps, after all is said and done, this film should have been made in the 1990s, when everybody seemed to get a kick out of being tragic and miserable and put-upon and what-not…Billie Holliday could have been their poster child, and perhaps we'd have seen t-shirts, like the silly Che Guevara ones, but with her image. Alas, we shall never know, and perhaps that is best—I could not bear to hear hip-hop renditions of Lady Day's songs.
However, had this movie been made in the '90s, perhaps the filmmakers might not have been disposed to treat their subject so completely as a victim. As it is, Lady Sings the Blues seems to enjoy heaping abuse, humiliation, and tragedy on the head of its central character without lingering very long on any event that might offset the image of the singer as anything other than a self-destructive woman-child caught up in forces beyond her control. If the filmmakers wished to present a love story about Billie Holiday, then fine—but the film never lingers on the romance between Holiday and McKay to make that spin on the story satisfying. If they wanted a story about struggle ending in triumph, fine; it's an established formula for musical biopics ranging from Coal Miner's Daughterto Ray, but any brief moments of happiness in the singer's life are relegated to montage format, and the payoff scene, the Carnegie Hall concert, is far too short to count as a payoff. Some audience members might well have left the theater grumbling, "Is that it?," and with good reason. By the end of the film we've gone through a lot of pain and misery, and Billie deserved to shine in at least one scene; instead, more tragedy intrudes on that moment in the sun as a montage of newspaper headlines recounts the singer's downward spiral and tragic end. All that we can really say when the film is over is "Poor Billie"—and that is a shame. This victimization of Billie Holiday is perhaps the most grating aspect of the film, and it does a major disservice to a woman who was, in fact, bold, brash, and larger-than-life.
Although it is a shame that the music seems to take a back seat to the overwrought drama, and that this film is practically useless as a biography, it is obvious that the intent was never so much to tell Billie Holiday's story, but to tell a tragic love story using the framework of the great singer's life—and provide a vehicle for Berry Gordy's star. So be it; Lady Sings the Blues succeeds on the level of soap opera heart-tuggingly well, and can hold its own with the best of that genre. Although dedicated fans of Lady Day's musical style will be disappointed in this entertaining but flawed film, it is still worth seeing on the basis of its incredible performances and Diana Ross's rather shallow but interesting interpretations of Holiday classics. Frankly, the real value of this film is what it represents: It is a groundbreaking film, proving that black characters in movies could be more than blue-collar non-entities or blaxploitation caricatures, and more importantly, that audiences of all races would accept them on that level. Ultimately, how you receive this film will depend on how you feel about the subject matter. Are you more of a movie fan or a music fan? Do you adore Billie Holiday, or is Diana Ross your diva of choice? No matter which camp you find yourself in, however, there's one thing that we can all agree on: a real film biography of Billie Holiday is long overdue.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Executive Producer Berry Gordy, Director Sidney J. Furie, and Artist Manager Shelly Berger
Review content copyright © 2006 Maurice Cobbs; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.