TBT: Lady Sings the Blues

In 1972 Diana Ross took on the role of the magnificent and tragic life of Billie Holiday. As she she withers in a strait jacket in a prison cell, waiting to hear the sentencing for her most recent drug charges, she reflects on her turbulent life.

“Lady Sings the Blues” has most of the clichés we expect—but do we really mind clichés in a movie like this? I don’t think so. There’s the childhood poverty, the searching for love, the unhappy early sexual experiences, the first audition, the big break, the years of climbing to the top, the encounter with hard drugs, the fall, the comeback, the loyal lover … we know the scenes by heart. ” said  Roger Ebert

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Though based on the life and career of the late Billie Holiday the story line of the movie was entirely fictional to the chagrin of Jazz music buffs who believed that the details of Holiday’s life should remain as close to reality as possible. Produced by Motown, as the pet project of powerhouse Barry Gordy, it is said this movie and staring role were his gift to the object of his affection, Diana Ross. Ross was an accomplished singer but had never previously acted, and it was not believed that she would be able to re-create the voice and spirit of Billie Holiday’s performance. 

It all begins in the early 1930’s in Baltimore, where a teen Billie, played by Diana Ross is raped which leads to her being sent to live in New York with a friend’s of her mother’s. She works first as a maid, and later as a whore, in a brothel in Harlem. The brothel’s “piano man”, depicted by Richard Pryor encourages her to sing. Holiday then begins singing professionally and eventually becomes the lover of gambler the notorious gambler Louis McKay. The character played by the charming Billy Dee Williams was actually Holiday’s third husband but their relationship is the sole romantic interest during in the film.

“Lady Day’s” unique style begins to earn her fame on the local club circuit, and she is invited to tour the South with a band led by white musicians.

While on tour she’s devastated by racist treatment and so turns to drugs to cope with the stress, eventually, becoming an addict–a habit which threatened both her professional and personal success.

She is then devastated by the death of her mother, and vowing to re-take charge of her life Holiday enters a sanitarium (hospital) in an attempt to get clean. McKay stays by her side, and makes several attempts to restrict her drug abuse but to no avail. Although she tries to begins a new life with McKay, her victory is short-lived. The final scenes of the film ends by glancing over her remaining, troubled days until her death at the tender age of 44.

Billie Holiday lived in a place and time in contemporary history that allowed her days on Earth to be well documented. There was quite an uproar from industry insiders who felt that Motown and Hollywood took the story of Lady Day and dramatized it for profit.

Jazz critic Leonard Feather, for one, noted that the film made no mention of Lester Young, Jimmy Monroe (to whom Holiday was married), John Hammond, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Teddy Wilson–all important people in her life during the time reenacted over the course of the movie. There are many opinions about Lady Sings the Blues though that hasn’t stopped Diana Ross, Billie Dee Williams, nor Billie Holiday from becoming a cherished and celebrated part of American Black entertainment history.

Never seen the movie? No worries, you can catch the entire film for free on Youtube.

It was nominated for five Academy Awards. The nominations were for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Diana Ross), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Carl Anderson and Reg Allen), Best Costume Design (Norma Koch), Best Music, Original Song Score and Adaptation (Gil Askey) and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced. The film was also screened at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, but was not entered into the main competition. 

The movie was based on the autobiography Lady Sings the Blues written by Billie Holiday and William Duffy.

Motown released a hugely successful soundtrack double-album of Ross’ recordings of Billie Holiday songs from the film, also titled Lady Sings the Blues. The album went to number one on the Billboard Hot 200 Album Charts, for the week-ending dates of April 7 and 14, 1973.

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