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Lady Sings the Blues (1972)

The story of the troubled life and career of the legendary Jazz singer, Billie Holiday.

Director:

Sidney J. Furie

Writers:

Chris Clark (screenplay), Suzanne De Passe (screenplay) (as Suzanne de Passe) | 3 more credits »
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Nominated for 5 Oscars. Another 5 wins & 3 nominations. See more awards »

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Cast

Cast overview, first billed only:
Diana Ross ... Billie Holiday
Billy Dee Williams ... Louis McKay
Richard Pryor ... Piano Man
James T. Callahan ... Reg Hanley (as James Callahan)
Paul Hampton ... Harry
Sid Melton ... Jerry
Virginia Capers ... Mama Holiday
Yvonne Fair Yvonne Fair ... Yvonne
Isabel Sanford ... The Madame
Tracee Lyles Tracee Lyles ... The Prostitute
Ned Glass ... The Agent
Milton Selzer ... The Doctor
Norman Bartold ... The Detective #1
Clay Tanner Clay Tanner ... The Detective #2
Jester Hairston ... The Butler
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Storyline

Born Elinore Harris, Billie Holiday had a difficult teen and young adulthood period, which included working in brothels, both as a cleaning woman and a prostitute, and being raped. Through this difficulty, she dreamed of becoming a jazz singer. She got her initial singing break when she applied at a Harlem club that was looking for a dancer, but where she got hired as a singer. There, she met and fell in love with the suave Louis McKay. After this initial break, Billie wanted her singing career to move to the mainstream clubs in downtown Manhattan. She took a risk when she agreed to be the lead singer for the Reg Hanley Band, a primarily white group, who convinced her that she would have to make her mark in regional tours before her Manhattan dream could happen. As Billie tried to advance her career, pressures of life, including being a black woman, led to her not so secret substance abuse (especially of heroin), not so secret because of her increasingly erratic behavior, both on ... Written by Huggo

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Taglines:

Diana Ross IS Billie Holiday See more »


Certificate:

R | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

View content advisory »
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Did You Know?

Trivia

When the film was first suggested in the late 1960s, Abbey Lincoln was the initial casting choice for the role of Billie Holiday with Diana Sands as second choice. The project was revived a few years later with Diahann Carroll as a suggested lead, but after discussions between Jay Weston and Director Sidney J. Furie, the role was offered to Diana Ross. See more »

Goofs

Some of the African-American male characters and extras sport modern (1972) hair styles with Afros or sideburns which were not in style in the 1930s. See more »

Quotes

Piano Man: What she don't pick up from the top, she can pick up from the bottom.
Billie Holiday: I hope that works both ways!
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Connections

Referenced in Anything But Love: First Lady Sings the Blues (1991) See more »

Soundtracks

Tain't Nobody's Business
Written by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins
Sung by Blinky (as Blinky Williams)
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User Reviews

 
Ross's Truly Once-in-Her-Lifetime Turn as Lady Day Dominates Overly Customized Biopic
30 December 2005 | by EUyeshimaSee all my reviews

The recent death of Richard Pryor prompted me to look at the 2005 DVD package of 1972's "Lady Sings the Blues", which proves the then-young comedian to be a fine actor in the meaty supporting role of Piano Man. Even though he was a master stand-up comic, it's still too bad he never pursued roles of a similar dramatic caliber since he obviously had the talent. Similarly, Diana Ross never fulfilled the promise of her big screen debut in the title role as legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915-59).

Bearing no physical and little vocal resemblance to Holiday, Ross somehow gets under her true-life character's skin much like Joaquin Phoenix does in "Walk the Line" or Jamie Foxx in "Ray". Thirty-three years have elapsed since I first saw this movie, and it is with a certain amount of regret that I report that Ross as an actress has not been anywhere near this good since then. Granted she only has three features under her belt, 1975's "Mahogany" reflected an ego run amok, and she was disturbingly miscast in 1978's "The Wiz". From the opening scene where she is suffering through heroin withdrawal in raw, harrowing detail to her sultrier nightclub performances, she manages to be incendiary by her sheer will. She is even convincing in the early scenes where she is barely a teenager. Her vocal performances really don't evoke Holiday's earthier style, though to Ross's credit, her vivid renditions of standards such as "Mean to Me", "Fine and Mellow" and "Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)" don't sound like Supremes redux either.

This achievement is all the more impressive since director Sidney J. Furie, a journeyman filmmaker at best, has surrounded Ross with an unwieldy rags-to-riches biopic that should have been edited down from its 144-minute running time. The screenplay - credited to Chris Clark, Suzanne De Passe and Terence McCloy (none of whom wrote a movie script before or since) based in part on Holiday's autobiography - plays fast and loose with the facts and piles on the clichés in true Oscar-baiting fashion. The drug-related scenes are powerful, though they eventually start to feel like condescending plot devices to make the viewer sympathize with Holiday for the persecution she experienced at the hands of abusive men and a bigoted society. Moreover, as Furie discloses on the accompanying audio commentary, the dialogue for several scenes is improvised by the actors, for example, the unnecessarily lengthy Club Manhattan sequence, where the lack of discipline becomes wearing.

Contrary to the fact that Holiday's true life story has been well documented and interest in her legacy increased, the filmmakers altered events and people in order to maintain interest from what they thought were mainstream audiences at the time. Consequently, the character of Louis McKay, Holiday's love interest and eventual husband, played with toothsome charm by Billy Dee Williams, synthesizes a lot of men who came into her life and helped shape her career. The dramatized results leave out key figures of the jazz world like saxophonist Lester Young, trombonist Jimmy Monroe to whom Holiday was married, and record producer John Hammond, as well as Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Teddy Wilson--all important colleagues and mentors during the period covered in the film. Instead, we are given Holiday's story as filtered through Ross's own story, an observation confirmed by Ross herself on the accompanying 2005 making-of featurette.

When the music is true to the period, it's quite wonderful, but composer Michel Legrand composed some gauzy, anachronistic interludes that sound like symphonic outtakes from his work on "Brian's Song". The costumes also have a Vegas revue feel, no surprise since designer Bob Mackie's flamboyant, early 1970's style is on full display here. For such an overlong movie, the ending feels quite truncated as newspaper clips are used to telegraph her eventual fate as Ross triumphantly sings her signature song, "God Bless the Child", in Carnegie Hall. Credit Motown mogul and Ross's Svengali, Berry Gordy, for having the fortitude, foresight and tenacity to oversee the project, and the DVD hammers that point in not only the overemphatic, only partially insightful commentary by Furie, Gordy and artists' manager Shelly Berger but also the making-of featurette which features Ross looking strangely youthful and Williams at least looking his age. There are several deleted scenes included in the DVD with no additional commentary from Furie, none refurbished and all understandably excised from the final cut.


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Frequently Asked Questions

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Details

Country:

USA

Language:

English

Release Date:

12 October 1972 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Lady Sings the Blues See more »

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Box Office

Gross USA:

$6,028,486
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Company Credits

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Technical Specs

Runtime:

Sound Mix:

Mono

Color:

Color

Aspect Ratio:

2.39 : 1
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