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Review: Lady Sings the Blues

As those un-Holiday raised arms attest, it’s all Diana Ross up in there.

Lady Sings the Blues
Photo: Paramount Pictures

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.

Cast: Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, James T. Callahan, Paul Hampton, Sid Melton, Virginia Capers, Yvonne Fair, Scatman Crothers Director: Sidney J. Furie Screenwriter: Terence McCloy, Chris Clark, Suzanne de Passe Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 143 min Rating: R Year: 1972 Buy: Video

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