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Queens of Heartache (2006)

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27 July 2006 (UK)  »

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Trying to Fit Too Much Material into a Short Running-Time
26 December 2014 | by See all my reviews

Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Maria Callas and Janis Joplin were all united by two things; they were great singers and all died young as a result of turbulent private lives.

The premise for this documentary is a good one; but director Jill Nicholls make the mistake of trying to fit too much material into a 59-minute running time. As a result the narrative comprised a series of ten-minute pen portraits of each singer, illustrated with brief clips of them in performance and accompanied by reminiscences from luminaries such as the late Mickey Rooney.

There were some redeeming features along the way. We learned, for instance, how Holiday refused to be cowed by anyone, despite suffering overtly racist treatment in the pre-civil rights era. Every time she visited a concert venue, the police searched her for drugs; and when they were successful, they made strenuous efforts to incarcerate her in jail. Garland grew up in a showbiz environment, and was so much locked into a life of performance that very few people knew her true character - funny, warm, with a salty sense of humor. One clip from a performance late in her career was especially poignant; she could hardly sing "Over the Rainbow" and had to rely on the help of her daughter Liza Minnelli to get through the song. Piaf led a fast life of drink, drugs and endless performance, but her signature tune "Je ne Regrette Rien" was especially apt - although she died aged only forty-seven, she crammed enough incident into her short life to make every day worth living.

In truth, to make a program about Joplin, Garland and Holiday was a rather difficult exercise, as all three singers used very different musical styles. The profiles left us wanting more; the kind of information that might be best provided by devoting forty-five minutes, or even an hour to each singer. BBC documentary schedulers please take note.


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