Lady Sings the Blues

Dir: Sidney J. Furie, 1972. Starring: Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor. Black Cinema.
Lady Sings the Blues

The most celebrated singer-turned-actor performance ever might be Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. It revived his career and was a turning point in his legacy as he moved from a teenybopper idol to the more mature crooner he is best remembered for today (and he followed it shortly with another important performance in The Man with The Golden Arm). But Sinatra had been acting in musical films for years (On The Town). In terms of degree of difficulty, for a first major role Bjork’s performance in the torture-fest sorta-musical Dancer in the Dark is certainly impressive and many singers have gone on to have their film careers eclipse their singing success (Cher, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, and to some extent Bing Crosby and Barbra Streisand). But the most audacious acting debut from a mega-star singer has to be Diana Ross taking on the role of troubled iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. Directed by journeyman director Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress File, The Boys in Company C) and based on Holiday’s own (said to be mostly fictional) autobiography, Ross throws herself into the role with aplomb, having to go to emotional depths that would challenge even the most veteran thespian. The film also made a kinda-star of her leading man, Billy Dee Williams, and helped establish a movie career for stand-up comedian Richard Pryor. Executive produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr, it was the first flick made under the Motown banner and it would also prove to be the apex of the the historic record company’s forays into filmmaking.

Lady Sings the Blues is a mostly typical music bio in that it's one of those classic “rags-to-riches-to-total self destruction” stories. No matter how many times I’ve seen this kind of tale, if the lead performance is dynamite, I’ll buy in. I don’t know how much of it is actually true but it’s still a doozy of a rollercoaster ride. After being raped as a girl, Billie took the only jobs that seemed to be available for a young black woman during The Depression: a cleaning woman and a prostitute. She eventually talked her way into singing in a little smokey nightclub where she meets her dream man, Louis (Williams), and catches the attention of a couple of white musicians who take her on the road to build up her name and also turn her on to drugs. The film seems to be more fascinated with Billie’s messy and ugly personal life than her voice, which most experts rate as one of the most seminal and important of the twentieth century. As Billie climbs the stardom ladder she is met with racism and humiliation, with her devoted but frustrated husband Louis lending support. (Though he comes off as Mr Wonderful here, it’s been reported that in real life Billie’s husband was just as much of a creep as the other men who exploited her. Ironically he was a technical advisor for the film, which may explain the whitewash.) Billie continues to sing her way to the top, but she falls deeper and deeper into heroine addiction. Her only friend appears to be her piano player (real life junkie Pryor, excellent here in a supporting role). Of course Pryor would reveal his own special kind of genius later with his two landmark concert films, Richard Pryor Live in Concert and Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. Hospital stays, arrests and even true love aren’t enough to end the torture for Billie. Though she does have a triumphant Carnagie Hall comeback show, it’s still a story of another legend dying young.

The film may be a little corny at times and it often tiptoes through pulp, but it works as an introduction to Holiday (though you may actually learn more about her career on Wikipedia, as I did). Most importantly, the film is exceptional as a showcase for Ross. Her singing group, The Supremes, were the most successful American act of the sixties and she was at the peak of her career when she took on this role. Although she may not actually sound like Holiday she captures the essence of the voice and her performance is so raw and emotional, like an open wound, Ross exposes all. Credit goes to Furie, as well, for having the goods to help the newbie Ross bring out this stunning performance. It’s too bad she never again had such a challenging film role. It’s also interesting looking back now at how charismatic Williams was. The machine was not in place to make Williams - a dashing black actor - a bigger star, and his subsequent film roles never matched the potential he showed here (though he would get his most exposure popping up as Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi).

A couple of years after Lady Sings the Blues, Barry Gordy Jr would actually get behind the camera and direct his two stars (Ross and Williams) in the ultimate boring camp mess, Mahogany, a sudsy international fashion industry love story. Ross’s third trip to the Hollywood movie big-time came in ’78 with the megabomb film version of the musical The Wiz, where she came off like a community theater actress lost on the massive sound stages. Sixteen years later she found a showcase to get all actor-y again in a TV movie called Out of Darkness as a paranoid schizophrenic. I’ve never seen it but she looks like she is doing some serious emoting on the movie poster. When most singers of Ross' stature finally do their movie vehicle, they usually stick close to home and play sorta-versions of their personas (Eminem in Eight Mile, Prince in Purple Rain, Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer). Instead Ross took a major risk and although she could have fallen flat, she didn’t. At the same time some of her fellow Motown recording stars, including Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, were pushing themselves artistically and finding great success with new sounds. Ross made her own maverick move; today Lady Sings the Blues may not be as well-remembered as are What’s Going On and Music of My Mind, but it was just as gutsy in its own way.

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Lady Sings the Blues was nominated for five Oscars: Best Actress, Best Writing, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Music, and Best Story and Screenplay Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 20, 2014 12:51pm
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