Sidney J. Furie
Billy Dee Williams
2 Hrs., 24 Mins.
Lady Sings the Blues September 9, 2019
iana Ross is hardly Billie Holiday’s closest musical descendent. Ross is arguably the product of a pop machine whose inclinations often felt more commercially motivated than artistically so, at least at first. Holiday was a stick-to-your-guns-style artist with a proclivity to make her audiences attach themselves to her every word as if she were preaching. The draw of Lady Sings the Blues (1972), a glitzy biopic about the
latter, is in part subversive. The operatic “biographical” drama proves to us that even if the Supremes or Ross alone were not capable of making music as resonant as Lady Day’s, no one else could have played Holiday quite like Ross in a movie. Granted, the film we see is a heavily and hammily fictionalized one. It’s so fictionalized it might as well have not been about Holiday at all; it’s so fictionalized that even if it seduces you after a while as it did me, you get just as moved as you do annoyed. I wondered: couldn’t the filmmakers have trusted Holiday’s actual life story to be good-enough dramatic fodder?
Whomever the Holiday we meet is, Ross brings her to life with staggering shade. Facially and physically, she’s as attentive to what she does as any actor extolling the virtues of the Method. The typical musician-to-actor arc is a tired one and seldom pays off for singers and/or instrumentalists trying to at least be a double threat. But Ross is so magnificent in the film that I thought that, if she focused on being an iconic actor instead of an iconic actress, she might have made just as big of gains. The performance she gives in Lady Sings the Blues is among the best of the decade and perhaps in all of biopic history, without hyperbole.
The latter compliment tends to be thrust on a lot of people starring in biopics — Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968), Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), or Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot (1989) — so I suppose that makes my use of it less magnitudinous. In the almost always detestable genre, the lead is so often miles better than the material they’re given that it’s sometimes the obvious praise to throw. They make the mutilation of truth somewhat more excusable.
Still, I’m partial, anyway, to wanting to kick down a biopic which takes too many liberties with history in the first place. Something is flummoxing to me about a filmmaker who dares to not only cinematize someone’s life but also do it in such a way that’s more attentive to theatrics than accuracy. So many biopics tell us that so-and-so is interesting but not interesting enough to have their experiences veritably told. This lends itself to a holistic disingenuousness difficult to swallow in most cases.
Lady Sings the Blues is a textbook example of a biopic that’s dismissive of the truth underlying its subject’s life. I often wondered, while watching the feature, why the writers of the film, Suzanne de Passe, Chris Clark, and Terence McCloy, didn’t go the admittedly still-not-known-about Dreamgirls (1982) route: make a work of historical fiction clearly based on truth in order to avoid a total hatchet-job of the facts while also maintaining the very-few pros of a biopic. But the presumptuous trio have too much gall for that. It concocts a classic rise-and-fall story so boringly orthodox that anger bubbles up from time to time, even if we’ve merely skimmed Holiday’s Wikipedia.
What we get is a connect-the-dots rock ‘n’ roll story that cares so little about Holiday’s artistry, impact, and actual struggles that we start thinking by its end that the movie doesn’t give much of a fuck about Holiday. More so it's interested in the rewards that come after you’ve made a melodramatic and oftentimes emotionally persuasive document with a both infamous and near-folkloric musician’s name attached. I wished the film were less apathetic in its commitment to catering to reality because there’s so much good it contains. There’s Ross’s rabble-rousing performance, namely, but also the perspicacious ways in which it evokes the sexism and racism of the era in which Holiday rose, and how they could so easily undercut the work of women like her.
e know we’re in for a bit of trouble just based on the opening. It’s pulpy in an unbecoming way. The opening credits roll on top of a black-and-white, 1942-set sequence where this movie’s version of Holiday (we’ll call her Billie from now on) is getting booked and then thrown into a jail cell on a drug charge. Every so often the screen freezes to mimic the look and texture of a tabloid. Grimy, booming
Bernard Hermann-like orchestrals blanket the action. Meet the notorious Billie Holiday, the film practically announces like a vaudevillian. We can guess based on the fact that this movie’s rather liked by the public and since it’s nearly two and a half hours long that we’re probably in for an ultimately compassionate cinematic painting of “Billie Holiday," and this is a false lead. But what an odd way to render Billie right off the bat. In these moments, she's something of an animal, a thing who might do tricks for us at a circus if we were to offer a treat. The feature fortunately gets better after this ink stain of a sequence, though I can’t say it gets better in the sense that it becomes less sensationalized. The movie is all sensation and no subtlety.
But Ross, in playing Billie, brings a pastel pathos to her character, even though she’s put on top of a rote rise-and-fall-(and-rise?) arc that involves her getting hooked on heroin, getting rescued time and time again by a patient man named Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams), and seeing a great deal of musical triumph. Ross, on both emotional and psychic levels, grabs us. She effectively commands us to root for Billie from the time we meet her as a perennially exploited little girl until the very end of the movie, where the director of the feature, Sidney J. Furie, collocates the visual of a late-career Carnegie Hall triumph with a newspaper headline that Billie Holiday has died at the age of 44.
Nonetheless, Lady Sings the Blues goes about fleshing out these relationships and events crookedly. It's rife with a dishonesty Ross's performance itself doesn't and could never possess. In actuality, McKay was Holiday’s third husband and one of a multitude of lovers she had had in real life. Yet the film imagines Billie as rather asexual unless she’s with McKay. Here, he’s the only man she’ll ever love or have a real relationship with, and he’ll be the only man who seems to truly mean something to her. Aside from the trivial fact that Holiday’s relationship with Carnegie Hall was even larger than what the film depicts, the movie espouses a strange falsity that Holiday’s fame was short-lived and skittish. In reality, her career spanned decades and she was rabidly prolific, the tumult just always a part of it. It's been said, too, that Holiday was a headstrong person in lieu of the setbacks which in part defined her persona. But most of the time in Lady Sings the Blues is Billie a gauzy woman who has no idea what’s good for her. She needs to be saved almost as much as she needs to shoot up in times of trouble.
My qualms with the movie didn’t result in my ultimately hating it. I’m angry with it for seeming to care so little about its person of interest. But with Ross so terrific, the musical sequences so galvanizing, and certain scenes genuinely masterful (most of them take place backstage, just as Billie’s coming down from a performance), it indubitably functions as a compelling drama about the trials and tribulations of fame. Still, we can’t fully enjoy it. The feeling that Ross is deserving of a movie made from better material than this one's, and that somewhere there’s a film that does Holiday justice, rises in us early on and never goes away. B-