There are 2 things that bothered me about “Lady Sings the Blues”. First, if the Wikipedia article on Billie Holiday is in any way accurate (and i generally estimate bios on Wikipedia to be at least 50% accurate), then the film only gives the barest outline of her life. For one thing, Billie was married at least once before Louis McKay. Second, as good as Diana Ross is, i was never once fooled into seeing her as Billie Holiday. There is just not sufficient resemblance for Ross to carry it off.
If you look at “Lady Sings the Blues” as a piece of fiction that just happens to be about someone who’s also named Billie Holiday and aspires to be a jazz singer in New York clubs, then it’s a perfectly fine film. And what they’ve done by including Louis McKay from the very beginning of Billie’s career is turn their relationship into a nice love story.
What i especially enjoyed about the film:
Richard Pryor plays Piano Man. Damn. As a child of the ’80s, my impression of Pryor was mostly (unfortunately!) limited to a vague awareness of “the freebasing incident”. I deeply regret this now because he was absolutely the standout for me in this movie.
The chemistry between Diana Ross/Billie Holiday and Billy Dee Williams/Louis McKay. If you skip ahead to 39.20 (and you can watch the whole film via YouTube if you want1) you’ll get to see the 1st time Billie and Louis go out together. The way she keeps him sassed and on his toes and he gets all flustered is just heart-meltingly adorable2:
Also, goddamn can Billy Dee Williams wear the hell out of a vintage 3-piece pinstripe suit. He also looks fine in the scene where he is out of his 3-piece suit — ahem.
The deleted scenes on the DVD were also fascinating3. There’s a scene where Louis confronts and punches the bandmember who’s been sharing drugs with Billie, which is something i really kept hoping would happen. There’s a really delightful scene between Billie’s mother (who’s otherwise barely in the film) and Piano Man, which i found very sweet. There’s a scene with Billie going back to her mother after Louis kicks her out, which showed Billie’s mother being very sick and would have helped to make more sense of Billie’s mother’s death (which otherwise seemed to come pretty abruptly). And there’s also a decent scene which, admittedly, was a bit overlong and talky where Billie and Louis discuss the offer she’s received to tour with Reg’s band and Louis pretty much talks her into it because he knows it will be good for her career (which would have made clear the line later on when Louis tries to take her off the tour, saying “I’m the one who sent you out here and now i’m taking you home”).
I’d mostly recommend this film for the chemistry between Ross and Williams. Otherwise, as mentioned, it’s only loosely about Billie Holiday.
And there’s also much to not recommend it. I mean, it’s about Billie Holiday, so there need to be trigger warnings for rape, lynching, a KKK assault, drug use, and the violent assault and death of Piano Man.
I did appreciate that the film tried to end on a not-too-somber note. The last scene is Billie triumphant at her Carnegie Hall performance, overlaid with newspaper headlines detailing how she failed to get her cabaret license back (and thus could not legally perform in New York clubs), was arrested (again) for drugs, and finally died at age 44. The film had already run my heart thru’ the ringer so i was grateful it didn’t give me one final sucker punch on the way out.
- The person who uploaded the film has the most charming and utterly wrong idea of how copyright law works that i have ever seen. [↩]
- Not that their relationship starts on the best of notes, since he tries to imply that he deserves to spend the night with her because he tipped her as she was singing and he knows she worked as a prostitute. [↩]
- Which is unusual. I enjoy looking at deleted scenes, but usually it’s pretty obvious why they were deleted. [↩]