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USA 1972
Directed by
Sidney J. Furie
144 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2 stars

Lady Sings The Blues

You couldn’t call Lady Sings the Blues a biopic of the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday. At best it’s a broad fiction based on the singer’s life. Not quite as loosely as Stanley Donen’s Royal Wedding (1951) was based on the life of Fred Astaire but its heading in that direction. A lot of material has been left out and what remains is given a generic treatment that only stops a few shades short of outright fiction, the overlong film being at best a showcase of Diana Ross’s talents which are decidedly in the singing department not acting.

After the opening section which depicts Holiday’s 1947 narcotics arrest the film scrolls back to the 1930s and a teenager in pigtails named Eleanora Fagan working as a housemaid in a Harlem brothel and crazy about jazz music. From there the film skates across Holliday’s life, spending a lot of time on inconsequential stuff, most of it invented, all of it unenlightening. Of Holliday’s work with Teddy Wilson, Count Basie and Artie Shaw or her relationship with Lester Young, who gave her the nickname Lady Day, we see nothing the film using periodic montages of sepia-toned stills to fulfill a broad chronology.  We also hear nothing about her disastrous marriages with the bulk of the drama being given over to a heavily romanticized version of her relationship with Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams), her boyfriend and manager and her decline into drug and alcohol addiction (she died of cirrhosis of the liver aged 44 in 1959).

What is good about the film is Ross’s rendition of more than a dozen Holiday classics such as ‘Them There Eyes’, ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’, ‘Fine and Mellow’ and ‘Don’t Explain’. Ross looks nothing like Holiday and doesn't have that singer's unique tone, but she gets the phrasing and delivery right and in themselves her versions are commendable. But then you would be better off listening to the originals and sparing yourself this otherwise disposable film.




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