Scandalous Movie Review: Lady Sings The Blues

Lady Sings The Blues (1972) Paramount Pictures
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.
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.


Straus Davis said…
Tell me one auto-bio movie that doesn't use literary licenses! When this movie was done, do you think it would have been as successful, if they had protrayed Billie's true life story?
However, I think if this movie was done today, her true life's story, would be accepted by the viewing public more readily. Case in point, is "RAY', the life of Ray Charles. Then again, Ray was still alive, when this movie was being made. He was able to provide input to his movie...
I don't object to a little literary license but this film has nothing whatsoever to do with the life of Billie Holiday and more to do with promoting Diana Ross. I agree if the film were made today it would be more factual. In fact, I wish they would remake this film, and hire an actress who can both act and sing.
Unknown said…
That was a gratuitous and moronic thing to say. The screenplay notwithstanding, which by the way Diana Ross did not write, the singing and acting were phenomenal. Diana Ross is a legendary and award winning actress and singer. You may not like her, and that's obviously your prerogative, but that doesn't make her any less a talented artist. Grow up and stop making mean and idiotic statements.
I'm not sure what what you considered to be mean and idiotic in my post. I stated that the film was produced as a showcase for Diana Ross and it was. I didn't find her performance to be as phenomenal as you did. I thought she was effective in some scenes but not in others. But I don't think that anything I said was gratuitous or moronic.
Unknown said…
Well,for a little Blackboy in 1976 at the age of 10 watching this Movie of Billie Holiday left such a strong and haunting impression on Me,that I was compelled to learn more about Her. I went to the library where they thought it was odd that a KID wanted to know about Billie Holliday. I found ''Billies Blues'' and actually read the whole thing. I immediately became a FAN of Jazz and Blues at a Young age when DISCO was it. I also discovered other Brown Divas like Floence Mills,Hazel Scott,Josephine Baker etc,that I NEVER heard of at the time and that the History Books and Teachers conviently decided to leave out or not give credit to. Although it was the 70's after all. I explain all this to say,that wether or not how historical accurate the Film was,it was in Memory of Billie Holiday and Her Music. In retrospect Miss Holiday didn't always tell the TRUTH anyway. So,Whos to really say what is accurate and what is not. The Movie made Me look further and learn more about Her and opened a Whole new World to Me as to the further contributions of Black People to America and it's Culture. Things My Educational System at the time did not show Me as a Kid. Slam this Movie if You want,but it's considered one of the top Classic Black Movies of all time due to the fact to Miss Ross Acting ability and singing of these Songs that She still blows away in Her Concerts to this day. If they do remake this Movie I hope they don't get a Girl that OVER SINGS. Miss Holliday was no belter. This Movie is every bit as good now as it was back then. I must add that You shouldn't judge a Movie so harshly until a SUPERIOR Movie is made to debuck the first one.
Thank you for your comment. I'm glad that the movie made you curious about Billie Holiday. That's one thing that I will give this movie. It inspired interest in her music, and several biographies were written in response both to Holiday's autobiography and also to the movie. As I said in my previous comment, I would love it if another movie were made about her life that did real justice to her life, but the gritty and the sweet. I think it's about time to introduce a new generation to this amazing woman. I could totally see Jill Scott playing this role.
Mark Desjardins said…
I remember the buzz leading up to this film very well. I was 21 at the time and was really into music. My best pal was a jazz musician and I would go to visit him on Saturdays and I would beg to hear a Billie Holiday record. At that time, Billie Holiday was forgotten and only the Columbia Best Of vinyl record was available, and only through a special order at the local record store. Diana Ross' portrayal of Lady Day brought Billie Holiday and her music back to the attention of the public. Diana Ross played a huge part in the revival of Billie Holiday and that is one of her most glorious career accomplishments. I have been very lucky to obtain a copy of the acetate of very first Motown recordings for the Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack that Berry Gordy held back from releasing because they were too much like Billie Holiday. The subsequent Blue CD that only was released a few years back further demonstrates Ross's vocal prowess at that time. Perhaps Miss Ross' voice has lost such of it's commercial appeal, but the magic is still there. The same situation was the case for Billie Holiday's voice during her last recordings in 1959. Both women are unique and will be remembered forever!
Thank you for sharing that. I have no quarrel with Diana Ross as a singer. Or even with her singing in the film. And again I agree that the film revived interest in Billie Holiday and has led to more books being written and more of her recordings being re-released. I just feel that the time is no ripe for another film version of her life. Or even a documentary. I just watched the American Master's programs on Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye which were fascinating. I don't know if they have done a program on Billie but they should, and if they have they should repeat it.
rossfan said…
I'm just saying!

Diana Ross:
Corrine said…
I also saw this movie when I was a teenager. I loved it because I was a huge Diana Ross fan back then. I am a HUGE Billy Holiday fan now, I have about a dozen of her CDs and I've read 3 biographies about her in the last 4 years. This movie happened to be on t.v. last night, so I watched it for entertainment, knowing it was extremely innacurate about the life of Billy Holiday. After reading her bios, the only true aspect about this movie were the songs Diana Ross sang. Other than that, I could not relate this movie to anything I've read about Billy Holiday. And Diana Ross did not resemble in the slightest any photos that I've ever seen of Billy Holiday. Billy was a robust, full bodied woman and only got very thin towards her last few years in life when she got very sick from abusing her body all those years w/ Heroine. Diana Ross is a talented singer, so I enjoyed listening to her sing some of Billie Holiday's songs, but after reading bios of Billy Holiday's life this movie is sorely lacking any factual information about her life and completely left out some of the most important people she spent years performing with, one of whom was "Lester Young" her faithful sax player, who played with her for years - was not even mentioned in the movie! She had 2 piano players in particular who also outlived her, Bobby Henderson was one her first pianists and he lived til 1969, and also Bobby Tucker, who played for her for years. I've never read anything about any of her piano accompanists having been murdered. So I'm not sure who in the movie the murdered piano-man was supposed to be. I think that was thrown in the movie for pure drama. Bobby Tucker lived well into the early 1970's. I also agree w/ the above reviewer that if you are at all interested to find out who Billy Holiday was and how she got started singing, you need to read bios on her. The also left out a major factor about Billy Holiday's musical background, is that her father Clay Holiday was her key jazz influence in her life and he introduced her to the jazz scene when she was child. Her father, Clarence Holiday, was a musician w/ the famous Fletcher Henderson Orchestra back in the 1920s, and she grew up surrounded by jazz musicians, yet no mention of her dad in the movie. I look forward to the day someone does an actual fact-based movie on Billy Holiday. I realize with movies there's always room to "exaggerate the truth" but this movie was about as innaccurate a bio that I've ever seen on anyone! Watch it for a good drama, and to listen to Diana Ross sing some Billy Holidays songs, otherwise, it now way reflects Billy Holiday's life or career.
Thanks for the comments. I think that this movie for it's time was a wonderful introduction to the story of Billie Holiday but I think the time has come to for another film that is a little bit more historically accurate, and deals a little bit more with her and her music. The movie does not deal at all with her father or with the other clubs that she played, like Cafe Society downtown. It's just a little simplistic for my tastes. Billie is much more complex than the film gives her credit for. I'd like to see a filmmaker like Darnell Martin have a crack at it after seeing Cadillac Records.
danyulengelke said…
Great review!

We're linking to your article for Academy Monday at

Keep up the good work!
Unknown said…
this movie made me want to know more about Billie Holiday and for that I'm truly grateful

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