Lady Sings The Blues is the reason why the United States vs. Billie Holiday exists. So many people over the last 50 years have read the source book and have seen every major media version of Billie Holiday presented in a gloomy manner. While the music speaks for itself, everything else makes you want to pity Miss Holiday. Most people just stuck around for the biopic cliches and enjoyed the performances. Now, most recent takes want to chastise the movie for daring to portray Holiday as a victim that was powerless at times.
Diana Ross was moving out of only music and into the next phase of her career. If you’ve seen Dreamgirls, then you can ballpark how this all went down. Berry Gordy guided this start of her movie career, by carefully selecting the then 16 year old Billie Holiday autobiography. When they found a lot of the material didn’t adapt well to an early 70s movie, they started nudging things into place. But, they kept all the real world stuff about the housekeeping and brothels.
There is potentially a great Walk Hard style musical biopic comedy to be made about movies like Lady Sings the Blues. So many times, the film follows a set pattern of meek, demure, quiet, discovery, love, failure, public humiliation and finally recovery. What’s weird is the timing of this film’s release and desire to put such a heavy light on Holiday’s drug abuse.
Berry Gordy was nothing if not a man with an eye for talent. Lady Sings the Blues wasn’t developed into a film because Gordy liked supporting literature. He needed an easy star vehicle to place Diana Ross. It was a slam dunk Awards bait movie with Ross opening up new revenue streams for Motown. Audra McDonald and Andra Day have rode the same formula to more recent success, but Ross gave it something extra.
The dramatic one-two punch of playing up Holiday’s abuse of narcotics was meant to tie into how Vietnam Vets were bringing back heroin addiction to the Inner City. The timing is insane, but you have to look at the bigger picture. Outside of a Columbia Records re-issue in the 1960s, Holiday was pretty out of fashion except for Jazz enthusiasts. She had fallen off the radar after dying in poverty in 1959.
Billie Holliday needed to get punched up into a tragedy of the times. Black-led movies were starting to pick up steam in the Studio system (Sounder, Shaft, Buck and the Preacher) and on the Underground circuits (Sweet Sweetback, Blacula, Across 110th Street). Lady Sings the Blues was set up to play to the suburban audiences, appease black audiences and entice Awards appeal from the major metros. That’s a lot to do with a musical biopic.
If you go back and read the initial round of reviews for Lady Sings the Blues, they are pretty patronizing. Paramount took it all in stride, as the film did amazing box office numbers and pulled 5 Oscar nominations. When I see the films that get chosen for the Paramount Presents releases, I’m always stunned to see what comes into play. The Paramount film library runs deep and it thrills me to see films like Lady Sings the Blues get attention.
Richard Pryor has one of his great early 70s supporting roles in Lady Sings the Blues. I want to say he shot this around the same he shot The Mack which is crazy in terms of contrasting films. But, it kinda ties into what I was saying about the patronizing aspect of the critical praise. The fact that black entertainers were making cinema that featured them prominently was treated as a novelty. Given how hard movies were rolling out at the time, it’s just indicative of where American cinema was at that point in time.
In less than a year, Pam Grier would be the Queen of the Drive-In/Grindhouse circuit and the Shaft Trilogy would conclude with Shaft in Africa. Hollywood was changing and a new generation of fans was saying what they loved. So, it feels kinda lame to read Newsweek and Time treating it like a joke that Billie Holiday was getting any attention. You win some, you lose some.
Paramount brings Lady Sings The Blues to Blu-ray with a few special features. You get a commentary from Berry Gordy, the director and artist manager. Plus, you get a featurette and deleted scenes. I’m getting to a point where unless it was a Classic Blockbuster, my hope for special features is diminishing outside of the Criterion Collection. However, the A/V Quality is a revelation. The 1080p transfer is rich and the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 is period appropriate and helps support the music.