Berry Gordy’s gift to Diana Ross—his very favorite, very personal piece of Motown property—was this lavish, bloated Billie Holiday biopic, surely the recipient of the most degrading Pauline Kael review to nonetheless include the phrase “I loved it.” Lady Sings the Blues is almost two-and-a-half hours of Call-Her-Miss Lady Day in close-up, with half that running time devoted to Ross’s irreverent interpretations of Holiday standards and the other half occupied by what Roger Ebert then proclaimed “this is acting!” (In other words, read his eruption as a quantitative statement, not qualitative.) It’s an amateur star performance-as-Stanislavski mail order catalog: a powerhouse of Method-ology (born more from a lack of acting experience than pop singers’ already refined sense of emotive abandon), complete with ingénue tics, a self-conscious display of age range, tentative ad-libs, flailing limbs, leaky eyes, precariously receding eyelids. Diana Ross’s performance manages to simultaneously call to mind Dancer in the Dark‘s Björk, for self-immolative martyrdom, and pre-Being Bobby Brown‘s Whitney Houston for that sleight-of-vocal trick, trying to pass off her lack of vocal soulfulness with a fizzy, grunting stream of jazz-babble. So while Ross’s fairly maligned renditions of “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless The Child” (in which she manages to mistake interpretation for doggedly remaining an entire phrase behind the orchestra) are one-note, her performance is practically in 12-tone. Unfortunately, director Sidney J. Furie’s film is a flabby soap opera with a chiffon (or should that be The Chiffons?) music score by Michel Legrand, which Kael rightly discerned was the sort of loveable loser take on Holiday’s life story that would skew audience sympathies her way. Hence, her heroin addiction both emerges as a reasonable reaction to a rough tour through KKK Southern states and also winds up indirectly causing the tragic, violent death of her loyal Piano Man (Richard Pryor) at the hands of mafia hit men. Still, it’s near impossible to actually feel sorry for Holiday as Ross and her 72 teeth portray her. Her triumphant concert at the stodgy, classical-snooty Carnegie Hall isn’t dedicated to Piano Man, nor to her long-suffering sensitive-gangster husband (Billy Dee Williams as the only guy who didn’t make her pick up dollar bills from tabletops with her thighs in her early cabaret days), nor even to that young black man she spots hanging like strange fruit from the Southern tree she meant to pee behind. As those un-Holiday raised arms attest, it’s all Ross up in there, her ego couched in a superimposed series of depressing headlines leading up to Holiday’s death at 44.
Apparently a financially troubled production (Gordy had to contribute a sizable portion of "his own" money to continue the film after the studio called in its cease and desist orders; I wouldn't have wanted to be Motown's bookkeeper that year), Lady Sings the Blues' transfer looks and sounds as weathered as Holiday's voice in its final years. The sepia-toned colors are rich, but the print has more imperfections than a heroin-addict's complexion. I can't tell if the iffy focus is a result of the cinematographer or the transfer, but either way this is not a reference-quality disc. The 5.1 surround remix puts some heft into the near-constant big band music, but there's not all that much dimensionality to merit the effort.
The less said about the extremely fawning commentary track by Berry Gordy and two yes men (well, one of them's a yes woman), the better. Director Furie and artist manager Shelly Berger can't seem to find enough ways to express their adoration for Ross's performance, which becomes intensely redundant given the evidence on display in the main feature. The film, quite simply, is the tribute to Ross-or, at any rate, more tribute to Ross than it is to Holiday. This spirit continues in the 20-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, in which recent interview footage with Ross reveals her new Janet Jackson makeover. Finally, there's about a half-hour's worth of deleted scenes that are all equally dull (save for a spectacular bit showcasing an inebriated Virginia Capers as Billie's mama) and look like they were transferred from a fifth-generation Beta dub, to boot.
As tacky as it is compulsively divalicious, Lady Sings the Blues whitewashes a major talent in service of a moderate one.