LADY SINGS THE BLUES
Review by Gordon Justesen
Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor
Director: Sidney J. Furie
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 143 Minutes
Release Date: November 8, 2005
it a shame how some of God’s children have it so easy, and others have it so
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.