Lady Sings the Blues

Beginning, middle and
★★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1974
Director: 
Sidney J. Furie
Starring: 
Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, James T. Callahan
The Setup: 
Not-very-truthful biography of Billie Holiday.
Discussion: 

After I watched Mahogany people on my message board began demanding that I watch this one, and since I generally wanted to see it anyway, I decided to give it a go. It ended up spending a total of a month on my apartment, because while it was interesting enough, there wasn’t that much I found compelling about it to just sit down and watch the whole thing in one go. And then there’s the fact that it has no ending.

We begin with a title saying “New York City, 1936.” We see Diana Ross as a strung-out Billie Holiday being brought in to a prison and photographed in a mixture of footage and black-and-white still photos while we hear what I would characterize as exploitation music. She is put in a straightjacket, and as she lies there on the floor we have a flashback that comprises the bulk of the movie.

We join Billie as a girl we are told is not yet 14, yet she is played by a full-sized Diana Ross, lending these scenes the eerie feeling that we are watching the story of a freakishly large 13-year-old.

She is soon raped by a drunk adult man, and although she wants to live with her mother, is sent to Harlem to do chores at a whorehouse. Eventually she is expected to be a whore herself, so she goes—seemingly directly across the street, due to an unfortunate edit—where she catches a glimpse of Billy Dee Williams’ Louis McKay and is weak with lust, then goes inside where piano player Richard Pryor arranges for her to sing. Knocking everyone dead, she is offered a job.

This job involves singing for tips, and it seems that these people do not want to just politely hand you the tip with a friendly smile. No, they put it on the edge of the table and expect the singers to [apparently] pick up the bill with their pussy lips in a shocking display of vulvular dexterity. Can women do that? Sure made me wonder. Ladies, can you enlighten me? Anyway, everyone is booing poor Billie because she doesn’t want to do the pussy thing, until Louis McKay hands her a large bill and shames everyone else into doing it, too. Pryor warns her about McKay, who is upstairs waiting for her. It seems that he still expects her to be a whore, just that she’ll take a bit more work. She keeps refusing him, and finally he takes her dancing at a fancy nightclub and eventually she relents and goes home with him.

So suddenly she’s a star, and receives an offer to front an all-white band, which was a big thing. She goes on tour, and there is a good little detail when one night all the guys in the band go drinking but Billie has to hang out by the bus because she’s not allowed in. She is getting exhausted from touring, and somewhere in here one of the band members offers her drugs to perk her up. Soon she stops by the side of the road to pee one day, and wanders into a lynching. Immediately afterward we hear her sing “Strange Fruit.” Not long afterward the bus drives through a KKK rally, and while the guys are trying to hide her, she gets up and starts cursing them. Now, I know I’m supposed to be all politically correct and defiant and stuff, but it seems foolish to me for one black woman to mess with a crowd of about a hundred KKK. I suspect this may have to do with the need to portray any minority member as incensed and ready to fight, rather than hide and try to just escape the situation, which may be the smartest thing to do. In this case the scene just kind of ends without showing any kind of resolution.

So meanwhile Billie is performing a lot and getting exhausted and taking drugs. The movie does not do a great job of showing why she’s so exhausted, as we only ever see her singing or on the bus, and as far as we know she has plenty of time to sleep. One is also aware that according to this movie, Billie rose to fame and popularity without ever entering a recording studio or releasing so much as a single. It’s also impossible to ignore that Diana Ross does not make any attempt to sound like Billie Holiday—probably a wise decision, and that sometimes a treacly score by Michel Legrand comes in, often with a theme that was turned into the [pretty good] song “Happy,” later performed by the Jackson 5.

Okay, so first a radio show chooses all of the white performers to sing, and ignores Billie. Then BDW shows up and demands that Billie get off drugs [I’m not even sure what she was on—heroin?], and she threatens him with a scalpel, so he dumps her. In here is an appearance by Berry Gordy as a pusher. Everyone is trying to get her off drugs [except the blond white pusher in the band], and when Billie gets news that her mother died, she checks herself into rehab. By this time she is finding it quite difficult to make it through a performance.

SPOILERS > > >
So BDW shows up at rehab and proposes. She agrees to marry him so long as he never leaves her. She also doesn’t want to sing anymore, or at least says so, because she knows that’s where the drugs are. Anyway, she’s arrested in rehab and now the story loops back to her in jail at the beginning, flashback over.

Now here’s where the movie starts to go awry, as it took a nice long [but still too compressed] time to get here, but now has to cram everything else in within a half hour. It’s like writing an essay in a blue book and realizing that you only have one page left and are only halfway through what you have to say. No sooner has she returned from jail than she wants to go back to singing, and she and BDW immediately start having troubles. BDW tries to help her rescuscutate her career, but their would-be manager demands that she go out on tour. She does, and after a while BDW wants to return to New York. She reminds him at that moment that he said he’d never leave her, and he says a dismissive “I know,” but then just goes on anyway. This is where BDW just inexplicably turns from super supportive guy to absolute evil bastard.

Billie’s having a hard time on her own, and starts wanting drugs again. I believe she pawns her wedding ring for the drugs. This part was very successful, as one senses that she really needed BDW’s support, and is truly despondent and bewildered with him gone. One feels like she does the drugs to calm herself in his absence, but also for spite, to show him that she will destroy herself without him. So she and Pryor are having a fine time doing their drugs [apparently this scene was improvised, and they’re both very natural], when some gangsters stop by and kill Pryor. If you look around 2:11:04 you will see that Billie is supposed to get thrown against the wall, but the gangster doesn’t even touch her, she runs over to the wall and throws herself against it, making one of the sillier noises in motion picture history. We are to believe that “God Bless the Child” was written as she and Pryor were hanging out and completed after his death.

So Billie is absolutely hysterical, wailing crazily as her manager and BDW call to say that she’s booked into Carnegie Hall, a big deal for a black singer and a jazz singer. The manager is asbolutely oblivious to Billie’s desperate wailing in his ear and just leeps trying to shout at her about the booking. BDW treats the whole thing as one more pain in the ass he has to deal with, but goes down to collect her in person. She is shut up in a dark house, truly borderline psychotic and hardly what you’d call together when he asks her: “Are you all right?” Uh, does she SEEM all right?

The very next scene is Carnegie Hall. She sings, and we see newspaper clippings that she was denied a cabaret license for New York, she was arrested again, and then she’s dead. From psychotic breakdown to Carnegie Hall to death in under one minute! Fame sure can have it ups and downs. < < < SPOILERS END

It's too bad about this movie, because it's got great players, good music, and nice performances, it just wanders away from any kind of sensible storytelling after a while and then, as you can see, just ends. They would need a movie twice as long in order to really do this story justice. Apparently the Carnegie Hall performance is supposed to be the climax of the story, but it doesn't work [at least not for me], and they just try to wrap the story up in the last minute with no sense of closure, no significant sense of what is next for the characters, no sense that you just watched a complete story. This is a movie with a beginning and a middle.

This movie also bears little to no relation to actual history. There is a Wiki page that will give you a concise overview of Holiday's life to compare against, the short version being that her childhood was much more desperate, her career included making and releasing records [which does not seem to happen at all in the film], and the men in her life, including Louis McKay, were much more abusive and craven than they are portrayed here. This is kind of why Ross' not trying to sing like Holiday in a way is what makes this film work; Because of that the whole thing comes off as a sort of fantasia BASED on Billie Holiday, but really having almost nothing to do with the reality of her. To me [looking back from 2007], this movie is "What If Diana Ross Played Billie Holiday?" more than any actual attempt to convey the truth about Billie Holiday. And since this all seems to be so on the surface, one can just embrace that and watch it for what it is. The director of this movie, Sidney J. Furie, also directed The Ipcress File, The Entity, Iron Eagle 1, 2 and 4, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

There is an interview with Diana Ross and various others on the disc, with poor Diana plastic-surgeried into looking like a kind of vaguely-unfocused image of Janet Jackson with Jessica Simpson-type hair, which made me think; "Wow, remember when it was an issue whether African-Americans should straighten their hair [to be more like Europeans] or leave it tightly curled in order to remain true to their culture? Well, I guess that issue has been resolved.

Should you watch it: 

If you're a big Diana Ross fan. Billie Holiday fans can safely miss this one. It's not bad and won't waste your time… it's too bad, it could have been so much better if it only had an ending.