Scandalous Movie Review: Lady Sings The Blues
Directed by Sidney J. Furie
Screenplay: Terence McCloy, Chris Clark & Suzanne de Passe
Based on the book Lady Sings The Blues by Billie Holiday and William Duffy
Diana Ross - Billie Holiday
Billy Dee Williams - Louis McKay
Richard Pryor - Piano Man
James T. Callahan - Reg Hanley (as James Callahan)
Paul Hampton - Harry
Sid Melton - Jerry
Virginia Capers - Mama Holiday
Yvonne Fair - Yvonne
Isabel Sanford - The Madame
Tracee Lyles - The Prostitute
Ned Glass - The Agent
Milton Selzer - The Doctor
Norman Bartold - The Detective #1
Clay Tanner - The Detective #2
Jester Hairston - The Butler
I've been researching the life of Billie Holiday (1915-1959) recently and on a recent trip to the library I discovered they had the DVD of the 1972 biopic starring Diana Ross. I've never seen the film, and while I don't recommend watching movies as research, I thought it might be interesting to see how they adapted her life story for the screen. The only thing I knew about this film before watching it was that Diana Ross had been nominated for an 1973 Academy Award for Best Actress for the film.
WARNING SPOILER ALERT!
The film is loosely based on Billie's autobiography which she wrote with William Duffy just before her death at the age of 44. And I do mean the term 'loosely.' About 90% of this film is pure invention. The film opens in 1936 when Billie is thrown in jail for possession of narcotics. She is so strung out that she needs to be put in a straight jacket. The film then flashes back to when she was 14, working in Baltimore as a cleaner in a brothel, where she listens to jazz records all day long while she cleans, singing along to the records. A traumatic event occurs which sends Billie to New York, where she ends up cleaning in another brothel. She tries to get a job singing but is told she is not pretty enough. So, she goes to work as a prostitute until one day she has enough and finally does get that singing job where she gets paid in tips. Her debut is a little shaky until she sees a handsome man, Louis McKay (Billie Dee Williams) sitting in the audience. Piano Man (Richard Pyror) warns her about McKay but Billie goes out with him anyway. They fall in love but she is offered a job singing on the road with a white band. She goes, hoping that it will help her to get a job singing at a club downtown back in NY. While on the road, she gets hooked on heroin by one of the white musicians. McKay dumps her when he finds out. After her mother dies, Billie resolves to get off the drugs and goes into rehab where she is arrested. After she finally gets out of jail, she resolves to quit singing but McKay knows that it is in her blood. Because of her arrest, her cabaret license is revoked so she has to go out on the road again. Her new agent tells her if she gets good reviews, he'll get her booked into Carnegie Hall. Out on the road, she relapses and Piano Man gets killed by men he owes money too. Again, she resolves to go cold turkey when she gets the hoped for concert in Carnegie Hall. The film ends with her singing at Carnegie Hall, while newspaper clippings are flashed on screen giving details of the rest of her life.
This movie seriously suffers from biopic disease. The screenplay squishes about 21 years of Holiday's life and career and squishes it all down to about 3 years. Billie always claimed that she didn't start using hard drugs until the 1940's and her drug arrest was actually in 1946. She didn't marry Louis McKay, a mafia enforcer until 1952, and while he did try to get her off drugs, he was also abusive as were her other 2 husbands. Far from being the saint she's portrayed in the film, Billie's mother Sadie also worked as a prostitute along side her daughter in Harlem and they were both arrested when Billie was 15. There's very little sense of the period in this film, apart from the obligatory Klu Klux Klan scene and also a scene where Billie stumbles upon a young black man who has been lynched. The song Strange Fruit, an anti-lynching song is sung shortly afterwards, but there is no historical context as to how she came to sing the song (which was written by Abel Meeropol, a white jewish schoolteacher who later adopted Ethel and Julius Rosenberg's two sons). At no time is it mentioned that most of the clubs in Harlem were for white patrons, and run by the mob. Nor is it mentioned that Billie's father was a jazz musician.
Anyone watching this film would be hard pressed to know why she was so famous and revered. The impression given is that she sang and did drugs and that's it. There's no mention of her appearances at the Apollo Theater, that she sang with Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, that she made a film with Duke Ellington. The Carnegie Hall concert was her comeback, not to show that she had finally made it. It's barely mentioned that she wrote several songs including 'God Bless The Child' or what made her singing so unique. Diana Ross is at her most effective when she is strung out on drugs, less so in her other scenes. She sings the songs beautifully but with none of the grit or heartache that Billie put into her music. Billie Dee Williams as Louis McKay is required to do little more than look handsome, dress well, and be smooth. There are no scenes about what he actually does for a living. Of course the film plays up that a white musician gets her hooked on drugs, while the patient, long suffering black man tries to save her. Billie spent a great deal time around musicians both black and white. Marijuana and heroin were part of the culture. Richard Pryor as Piano Man basically encompasses every musician that she knew. Again, there is no mention of Lester Young, the tenor saxophonist who actually started calling her Lady Day or John Hammond the man who discovered her when she was 18. One has to wonder if it is because they were still alive and objected to being in the movie.
Whatever the reason, anyone wanting to learn about who Billie Holiday was and her contributions to jazz and music in general would do better to read a biography rather than to watch this movie. I particularly recommend STRANGE FRUIT by David Margolick which details how Billie came to sing the song and the impact that it had.