Slick and tough—or at least tough enough to avoid accusations of whitewashing history—this biopic of legendary singer Billie Holiday benefits from casting kismet. By the early ’70s, Motown star Diana Ross was emerging as a major solo artist after having led the quintessential “girl group,” the Supremes, through a string a pop hits in the ’60s. Public fascination with Ross was at a peak when Motown kingpin Berry Gordy decided to introduce her as an actress, and Gordy took a big risk by presenting Ross in a complex role as an iconic historical figure. Ross rewarded his confidence with a star-making performance that earned Ross not only a second career as a film star but also an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Comparisons to the multimedia career of Barbra Streisand, another ’60s singer who scored on the big screen, are inevitable, but the differences are telling—Streisand emerged from musical theater, so she transitioned easily to a multifaceted screen career.
Ross, conversely, seemed to have just one memorable acting performance inside of her, perhaps because she found some special insight into Holiday’s troubled soul. Plus, of course, the fact that Ross sings much of her role—effectively delivering such angst-ridden Holiday compositions as “Don’t Explain” and “Strange Fruit”—means that the diva known as “Miss Ross” played to her strengths.
Presented in the standard biopic style of episodic flashbacks connected by a wrap-around vignette depicting Holiday’s worst moment of crisis, Lady Sings the Blues is ordinary in conception and execution. Lavish production values are used to convey historical periods, and every juncture of the protagonist’s emotional life is articulated so clearly it’s impossible to see Holiday as anything but a troubled heroine. Whether she’s subverting the dehumanizing treatment of singers in a Harlem nightclub by refusing to sexualize her performances, or losing her soul to the heroin addiction she picks up during a rigorous touring schedule, Holiday is idealized as a once-in-a-lifetime talent whose songs emanated from deep emotional scars. Thanks to this oversimplification, Holiday the person gets subverted into Holiday the role. The name of the game is giving Ross dramatic things to do, and she does them well enough to make an impression.
Director Sidney J. Furie, a competent storyteller but never a great artist, keeps things moving quickly, though the blandness of his approach is particularly visible in the film’s supporting performances. Billy Dee Williams is saddled with a one-dimensional part as Holiday’s long-suffering boyfriend, so the actor relies on charm and swagger to carve a niche for himself. Despite similar limitations, comedian Richard Pryor—who plays Holiday’s sidekick and fellow addict, known simply as “Piano Man”—nearly steals the movie with his tragic final scene. As for “Miss Ross,” she mostly squandered the opportunity created by Lady Sings the Blues. After starring in the widely panned melodrama Mahogany (1975) and the equally derided musical flop The Wiz (1979), she withdrew from acting until appearing in two minor movies during the 1990s.
Lady Sings the Blues: GROOVY