Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Lady Day

Film: Lady Sings the Blues
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

In my head, I have a tendency to mix up Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker. I’m not sure I’ll do that again after seeing Lady Sings the Blues, the biopic of Billie Holiday. This is a film that reminds me a great deal of La Vie en Rose, but only because I saw that one first. Both films cover the meteoric career of a supremely talented but ultimately tragic singer. I have to admit, I was nervous about a film featuring Diana Ross in a dramatic role. My nerves were unjustified. Ross is tremendous, both as a singer (duh) but also playing a woman torn apart by her talent and her evident unending appetite for heroin.

The film opens with Holiday in a padded cell, strapped in a straitjacket, and raving from crushing heroin withdrawal. What follows comes in flashback, starting with young Billie when she was still named Eleanora (but is still played by Diana Ross). As a young girl, Eleanora works in a brothel cleaning, and before we get too far, she is raped by one of the customers. Her mother packages her off as a maid to a woman who mistreats her, and before too long, Eleanora is working in a brothel herself.

This doesn’t last long, though. Soon enough, and after a failed attempt to get a job as a dancer, she lands a job as a cabaret singer thanks to the quick intervention of Piano Man (Richard Pryor). Her debut as a singer goes poorly until the timely intervention of Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams), and her career is launched and her relationship with the suave and wealthy Louis blossoms.

After a year of singing, Billie is approached by a man named Reg Hanley (James T. Callahan) and his brother Harry (Paul Hampton) approach Billie with a proposition: they want Billie to front their band. It’s a unique proposition, a black woman fronting an all-white, all-male band. The plan is to go on a cross-country tour to start a buzz for the band and make a name for themselves, then return to New York on top of the world.

It’s on this trip that two important things happen to Billie. The first is that her eyes are opened to the rampant racism still active in the South. This includes witnessing a KKK rally and seeing the aftermath of a lynching (from whence came the song “Strange Fruit”). The other important event is that this trip begins her descent into heroin addiction. The trials and wear and tear of road life take their toll, and soon enough, Billie is being supplied with heroin by Harry. By the time the trip winds up, Billie is fully hooked. Things get so bad that eventually Louis kicks her out. She winds up back in the same club she started in.

The catalyst for cleaning up is the death of her mother. When that happens, Billie checks herself into rehab. Despite being under a doctor’s care, Billie is arrested and thrown into that padded cell we were at in the beginning, just in time for the third act, which can only go in one direction—a re-descent into drugs, the loss of her cabaret license preventing her from singing in clubs, and her eventual successful concert at Carnegie Hall that failed to restore her in the good graces of the commission.

Billie Holiday’s story isn’t a new one, and it’s one that seems to repeat itself about once a decade—Dorothy Dandridge, Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston, and Amy Winehouse spring to mind. But it’s still a story worth telling. As I mentioned at the top, I had some reservations about Diana Ross in a dramatic and ultimately tragic role, but she seems made for it. There’s a hint of tragedy hovering about her throughout, and of course she has the voice to pull off these great jazz numbers and really sell them. I have no idea what Diana Ross’s life has really been like, but there’s some truth to the idea that to sing with such feeling requires a past filled with pain.

While this is a solid story and is filled with some tremendous music, there are some strange things going on here. The picture montages work pretty well, slipping into sepia-toned photographs to deal with the passage of time, but at one point, Ross is superimposed onto pictures of some jazz greats and then appears in color over the sepia photographs. It just comes off as strange. We have this fantastic singer playing the role of a fantastic singer. We can’t use that? Instead we get music that sounds like it should be playing over the credits of Fantasy Island.

More seriously, in a film that relies this heavily on music, all of the music that isn’t Diana Ross singing is both terrible and completely inappropriate. It’s like a great jazz ensemble was hired for any scene involving Billie Holiday actually performing, but an orchestra that handles Musak and incidental music for soap operas was hired for everything else. There’s also a brief moment of inexplicable slow-motion footage toward the end that feels completely out of place, almost as if the director were contractually obligated to include it.

Lady Sings the Blues is a worthy watch, but it has real problems. But Diana Ross is a revelation.

Why to watch Lady Sings the Blues: Diana Ross. She may not look like or sound like Billie Holiday, but she looks great and sounds better. And it’s worth it to hear Diana Ross yell “motherfucker” at a KKK rally.
Why not to watch: The music when Diana Ross isn’t singing is frequently wildly inappropriate.

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