When I first saw Lady Sings the Blues, I knew nothing about Billie Holiday beyond her fame as a jazz singer. I know more about her music now, but remain largely ignorant of her personal life. Such knowledge doesn’t matter much in talking about the movie anyway since in this black-themed variation on overheated celebrity melodrama, any relationship to reality takes a back seat to generic expectation. The film is dazzling, but not a very serious look at an artist’s tragic life.
In fact, a good argument could be made that Lady has more relevance for Diana Ross than Billie Holiday. In a stunning feature film debut, Ross demonstrates an emotional range and versatility that any actor could envy. The film did not exactly make her a star, of course, since she was already well known from “The Supremes.” Unfortunately, none of her later film roles delivered on the sensational promise of her first appearance.
To be sure, the film’s Billie Holiday offers an excellent opportunity for any actress. The rise and fall of a gifted outsider is tried and true formulaic fiction. Add Holiday’s drug addiction, her difficulties in dealing with it, and the gritty detail of the unfamiliar world of jazz and black hardship, and you don’t need much more than a good journeyman script. Ross and the vivacious supporting cast move Lady way beyond such mild competence, but they are helped by a formula that has been dressed to the nines and saturated with an atmosphere that pulses with its own teeming dynamism.
Smoky, textured cinematography, rakish costuming and lush period production design cushion Ross with a kind of hip, jaunty, latter-day movie-queen glamour. The smart, often flamboyantly coarse dialog is combined with what feels like partial improvisation that is often far more complexly moving than the more conventionally dramatic sequences. For example, Billie’s hysteria when she and her band are attacked by Ku Klux Klansmen, while plausibly harrowing, is nonetheless so obviously set up as a cause for her descent into addiction that you can see the furniture being arranged. On the other hand, inspired as much of the improvisation may be, some it goes on too long as the actors struggle to focus dramatic and narrative points.
When Billie learns of her mother’s death, for example, as her connection prepares a dope injection and Piano Man (Richard Pryor) tries to stop both of them, the confusion, shouting and emotional pain persist to a point that you want to get away. Improvised or otherwise, too many scenes like it cumulatively drag the movie down. Sympathy starts to dry up as Billie learns nothing from her mistakes and makes one bad choice after another. As they hit those highs and lows on this stylish trip down a well-worn path, Ross and the vibrantly rendered milieu assure Lady Sings the Blues is never less than absorbing. But Holiday’s recordings tell us more about her pain than all the florid melodrama.