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Blu-ray Review: Lady Sings the Blues

February 23, 2021

By John Corrado

In 1972, Toronto-born director Sidney J. Furie made a biopic of Billie Holiday, starring Diana Ross in an Oscar-nominated debut performance as the legendary singer.

That film, Lady Sings the Blues, is being released for the first time ever on Blu-ray this week from Paramount, a release that is timed to coincide with the arrival of the new biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

Named after Holiday’s own 1956 autobiography of the same name, upon which the film is loosely based, Lady Sings the Blues opens with Holiday (Ross), who was born Eleanora Fagan, being arrested and detained on drug charges. We then cut back to her as a teen girl, being forced to work in brothels in order to make ends meet.

When Eleanora impresses the manager (Sid Melton) of a local club with her soulful singing voice, she is given a job as a performer and adopts the stage name Billie Holiday. She is noticed by the wealthy Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams), who encourages her to pursue a career as a singer, and eventually becomes her husband. From here, Furie’s film charts Holiday’s rise and fall, as she goes on the road with a white band led by Reg Hanley (James Callahan), taking her through the heart of segregated America, and falls under the sway of drugs as a way to cope with the pressure.

The historical accuracy of Lady Sings the Blues has been called into question over the years. While I can’t really speak to that, I would say that the film works as more of a melodrama about drug addiction than it does a proper biopic of Holiday. The film feels somewhat stagey at times, both in its construction and visual aesthetic, and the screenplay by Terrence McCloy, Chris Clark and Suzanne de Passe focuses too much on certain elements and not enough on others.

For example, Holiday’s performance of the song “Strange Fruit” is relegated to one sequence in the middle, and the fact that the FBI came after her for singing it (which provides the basis for The United States vs. Billie Holiday) isn’t mentioned at all. It does serve as one of the most stirring sequences in the film, but it also feels somewhat clouded by the rest of the movie.

With that said, Ross is quite good in the role of Holiday, and she is given the opportunity to cover several of the songs that made her famous on the film’s soundtrack. Even in hindsight, it’s really not surprising that Ross got a Best Actress Oscar nomination (one of five nominations that the film received) for her performance. Williams also does strong work here, five years before taking on his most famous role as Lando Calrissian in Star Wars. Finally, the cast includes fine work from Richard Pryor as Piano Man, who first accompanies Holiday at the club.

Watching Lady Sings the Blues for the first time now, I found it to be a mostly well acted but also slightly stilted biopic, that is mostly engaging in fits and starts. Still, the film does still hold some cultural relevance, not least of which for its strong performances and song numbers, and the Blu-ray offers a fine presentation of it for future reference.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray comes with several previously released bonus features, including a commentary track, a featurette, and seven deleted scenes.

Commentary by Executive Producer Berry Gordy, Director Sidney Furie and Artist Manager Shelly Berger

Behind the Blues: Lady Sings the Blues (23 minutes, 6 seconds): This archival piece features interviews with Ross, Williams, and co-writer de Passe, as well as John M. Forbes and Sandra Evers-Manly of the Black Hollywood Education & Resource Centre, reflecting on the production of the film and also its cultural impact. Ross talks about being offered the role by producer Berry Gordy right after The Supremes broke up, and the daunting task of taking on the role of Billie Holiday.

Deleted Scenes (21 minutes, 3 seconds): A selection of seven surprisingly lengthy scenes that were cut from the film. The video and audio quality on them is quite poor.

Billie’s Party (1 minute. 59 seconds)

Billie and Louis Come Home (6 minutes, 17 seconds)

Billie and Harry (1 minute, 28 seconds)

Louis Threatens Harry (1 minute, 53 seconds)

‘Just Get Some Sleep’ (1 minute, 31 seconds)

Billie Visits Mama (4 minutes, 49 seconds)

Billie Goes to Jail (2 minutes, 12 seconds)

Lady Sings the Blues is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 143 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: February 23rd, 2021

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