Billie Holiday experts have lots of quibbles with Lady Sings the Blues, but this melodramatic biopic has plenty of emotional payoffs, even if they're slightly obscured by the triumph-and-tragedy clichés of the heavily fictionalized screenplay.
Credit Miss Diana Ross for her guts. In this, her first screen performance, she tosses all vanity aside, kicking things off by wearing a straitjacket and writhing around on the floor of an asylum (that writhing earned her an Oscar nomination). What has brought Billie Holiday to this lowly state? The flashbacks will tell us.
We next see Ross as a teenage Billie, a rape victim who's been tossed out of her Baltimore home and forced to take a job as a maid -- and a working girl -- in a Harlem brothel. It's there that she meets the in-house Piano Man (Richard Pryor), who encourages her to sing her way to success. That she does, but it's not an easy road. She racks up three marriages, although the only one depicted in the film is to gambler Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams), and eventually heads off on a tour of the South with a white band. This being the '40s, she finds herself the victim of terrible racism, and drink and drugs are her ticket to a sort of inner peace.
Surrounded by people who seem to want to help her, Billie only gets worse as the years pass, and it's not until she finds herself in the straitjacket that she realizes it's time to find a path to redemption... if it's not too late.
Of course, music plays a major role throughout the film, and Ross sings many Billie Holiday classics along the way. She doesn't dare to try to impersonate her. Instead, we get the typically nasal Ross delivery but with much more gravitas than she musters in the typical Motown pop hit. Ross and director Sidney J. Furie seem to feel that the slower the song, the more serious the mood, so at times the film seems to be grinding almost to a halt. Ross doesn't look anything like Holiday either (she's far too pretty), but she leaps over these hurdles with a measure of grace and talent that she has never again shown on screen.
Billy Dee Williams is equally good, transforming from smooth-talking ladies' man into a caring if somewhat overwhelmed husband. As for Pryor, it's a shame he didn't take or couldn't find other serious roles. The guy could act, and Piano Man's own tragic arc is painful to witness.
Many people who crossed Billie's path over the years -- Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and more -- don't show up in Lady Sings the Blues. Historians don't like that, but this isn't history. It's a tragic love story that follows the rise and fall and rise and fall of forceful personalities who lived tough lives that in the end didn't last all that long. The movie ends on an up note, but Billie Holiday was dead by 44.
The DVD includes a commentary by Furie, Barry Gordy, and Shelly Berger, a behind-the-scenes documentary, and deleted scenes.