Lady Sings the Blues

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

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.

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

Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall

Dir: Spike Lee, 2016. Music.

If only every great artist could have a film made about them like Spike Lee’s Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall. Instead of trying to tell the entire Jackson story in one long novelistic film, Lee wisely concentrates on a few chapters, which allows him to really dig deep. Like the Martin Scorsese doc Bob Dylan: No Direction Home that spent over three hours telling the story of the folk icon’s period only up until the late '60s, Lee’s film focuses on the relatively brief period from the late '60s to ’79. He takes on Jackson’s newfound stardom as part of The Jackson Five, culminating in the making and release of his pop/disco masterpiece album Off The Wall. Lee throws everything he can at the screen, creating a dynamic hodgepodge of images and commentary. In his growth from child to young man, Jackson's world was full of musical influences and there is a plethora of archival footage from Fred Astaire to fellow Motown artists to Studio 54 to illuminate Lee's points. The amount of material documenting Jackson’s personal and creative growth is staggering. There are all those Jackson 5 music and television appearances, collaborations with Motown, studio work and even a Saturday morning cartoon show. Lee incorporates a "then and now" bookend by weaving in footage from the later Jacksons Victory Tour, giving us a chance to see Michael interpret his songs as both a boy and a man.

All the on-screen witnesses speak of the young Michael’s ambition, watching closely and questioning the adults he was surrounded by. That ambition led to the family leaving Motown while Michael was in his teens; the group became the more disco-infused The Jacksons and paved the way for Michael to slowly take on a stronger role in shaping the music his own way. He ventured away from his brothers first by recording the theme song for the killer rat movie Ben (and getting an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for it) and by appearing as the Scarecrow in Sidney Lumet’s film adaptation of the Broadway smash The Wiz. Eventually everything he gleamed along the way led to the Off The Wall album.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 16, 2016 2:03pm

The Wiz

Dir: Sidney Lumet. 1978. Starring: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Mabel King, Nipsey Russell. English. Musicals/Black Cinema

The Wiz has one of the worst reputations in film history. It was a commercial and critical flop and is said to have ended not only Diana Ross' film career but Hollywood's investment in musicals and the era of black-centric movies that had recently evolved from blaxploitation to character driven drama and comedy. Made in 1978, it is the film version of the staged musical that took Broadway and the Tony's by storm in 1975. The staged production starred a teenage Stephanie Mills (who would later become an R&B sensation) who was also signed to play Dorothy in the film version. That role went to Diana Ross who critics, and even some involved with the production, felt was too old for the part. She was supported by an outstanding cast including a young and vibrant Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Ted Ross reprising his Tony award winning roll as the Cowardly Lion. Unfortunately, Joel Schumacher wrote a flimsy script using very little of the play's libretto and instead infused it with “feel good” jargon from motivational guru Werner Erhard including the song “Believe in Yourself.” The critics nailed the film and Ross' performance with brutal accuracy but also gave high praise to its practical production including costumes, choreography, and cinematography. In fact, it was nominated for 4 Oscars but failed to win any. As a child I was mesmerized by this film. Dorothy did seem too old in the beginning but as she began dancing down the yellow brick road her joy and beauty emerged until I thought she herself was magical. I remember rejoicing in the new “modern” versions of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion. They felt so tangible and textured - more so than The Wizard of Oz of 1939. The Munchkins were kids, like me! And the people of Emerald City were extravagantly beautiful. I remember being frightened and on the edge of ...

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 11, 2008 3:30pm
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