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LADY SINGS THE BLUES

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor
Director: Sidney J. Furie
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 143 Minutes
Release Date: November 8, 2005

“Ain’t it a shame how some of God’s children have it so easy, and others have it so hard.”

Film ***

Billie Holliday and Ray Charles had very much in common. Both emerged as musical legends in their own right, and both became victims of drug addiction at a certain point. The only difference is that Charles survived his affliction, while Holliday died as a result at the age of only 44.

Lady Sings the Blues is a gripping simultaneous tale of glory and tragedy. It seems that Billie Holliday went from rags to riches to rags in a heartbeat. Holliday’s life is brought to sheer life in a stunning performance from singer Diana Ross, in her acting debut.

The film opens in New York, 1936. Holliday, midpoint in her career, is being hauled away to prison. As she is locked up and placed in a strait jacket, the last twenty years of her life unfold before us in flashbacks. We see Holliday at a young age working at a brothel, starting out as a cleaning lady before being soon promoted. After seeing what little that job had to offer her, she left to pursue a career in dancing or singing, which ever opportunity came knocking at her door first.

Her path to determined stardom leads her to Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams) a man with all the right connections. While seeing her perform as a mostly shy Cabaret singer, McKay vowed to put her in the right path. Before long, Holliday becomes a jazz singing sensation across the nation. He becomes her manager, and soon becomes her husband.

But then comes the temptation of an element that seems to be the catch of sudden fame; drug addiction. She becomes hooked on heroin, just as Ray Charles did, but the effect on her was a much more fatal one. She can’t seem to shake her problems even when her supportive system, including her husband and longtime supporter/band mate Piano Man (Richard Pryor, in a magnificent early performance), beg her to do so.

Does Lady Sings the Blues rank as one of the great musical biographies of all time? I’m not sure, especially when such fare as Oliver Stone’s The Doors and especially Taylor Hackford’s Ray have come into existence since this film’s release in 1972. But the film is entirely too good to dismiss.

Director Sidney J. Furie brings a good level of power to the film. The staging of certain events in Billie Holliday’s life, along with the help of wonderfully captured montages, do create a memorable cinematic view of a musical rise and fall. Furie’s film does indeed honor both the beautiful music and brutal tragedy of Ms. Holliday’s life quite well.

And the performances are simply astonishing. Everyone had to be curious in 1972 as to whether or not Diana Ross could not just act but make a believable Billie Holliday, even if she could do the part justice in the singing department. The answers to those questions are YES and YES. Right from the first scene, where Holliday is in a jail cell and dying for a drug fix, you buy her as Holiday.

And the film also features some of the finest work to come from both Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor. Williams, in what was easily his biggest role yet at the time, is flawless in providing the character that audiences ends up sympathizing with. And Pryor, who had already gained notoriety as a terrific comedian, provides many of the films funniest bits while at the same time delivering a purely revealing performance.

Lady Sings the Blues is an effective musical biopic. The vision of director Furie, the terrific music numbers and the marvelous performances from Ross, Williams and Pryor make it all the more invigorating.

Video ***

Paramount delivers a most impressive visual transfer for a 70s release. The anamorphic picture excels in displaying many terrific wide lens shots. Image shows a great deal of clearness from beginning to end, with a slight showing of grain in a shot or two which don’t even begin to distract. The musical set pieces, particular the Carnegie Hall finale, look quite amazing.

Audio ***

Likewise in the audio field, the sound is more surprising when taken into consideration that this is an early 70s release. Paramount made a good decision to include a 5.1 mix. As a result, the musical numbers sound nothing short of amazing. Dialogue delivery is perfectly clear and numerous set pieces allow for brief moments of complete surround sound.

Features **1/2

While only three extras can be found on the disc, each of them are quite acceptable in the end. Included is a commentary track with executive producer Berry Gordy, director Sidney J. Furie and artist manager Shelly Berger, as well as a nicely done retrospective documentary titled “Behind the Blues”, and up to about twenty minutes of deleted scenes.

Summary:

While it does contain numerous clichés of the musical biopic, Diana Ross soars in her portrayal of Billie Holliday in Lady Sings the Blues. The film is a most absorbing tale of a tragic rise and fall of an purely angelic singing legend.

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