A lesbian teenager unsuccessfully juggles multiple identities to avoid rejection from her friends and family. Mounting pressure from home, school, and within wears the line between her personas thin with explosive consequences.
It's 1959 in a seedy bar in Philadelphia, and Billie Holiday is giving one of her last performances interlaced with salty, often humorous, reminiscences to project a riveting portrait of the lady and her music 4 months before her death.
Long-overdue and obviously made with good intentions, this TV biopic of legendary 1920s Blues queen suffers from usual script trouble: how to condense someone's life in a two-hour story without making it all like a cartoon. The project was already planned for decades, I remember media talking about possibility of this movie even in early 1970s, right after "Lady sings the Blues" and back than Roberta Flack (who was white-hot at the time) was considered for the main role. Not that Bessie was ever forgotten - "Columbia records" kept her complete works on the market, Janis Joplin paid for her gravestone, there were theater plays and books about her life, notably by Chris Albertson who became world's greatest authority on the subject (and was curiously ignored in making of this movie). It took four decades to finally have this biopic made and contrary to my great expectations, I am saddened that it all resulted with such a predictable stereotypical fantasy.
Ingredients are right: cast is spectacular and gives its best shot. Not just Queen Latifah in the main role and Mo'Nique (as Ma Rainey) but countless actors playing the circle of lovers, husbands, boyfriends and relatives are impressive, particularly Khandi Alexander (as vicious cousin) who steals the scene every time she comes up on the screen. Clothing, scenery, visually everything works just fine and for a while you might even enjoy the thrill of re- created world of 1920s specially as actors are so sizzling and determined, there is a very fascinating insight into a long-gone segregated, brutal world of woman who escaped crushing poverty and became breadwinner for everybody around her. BUT (and there is a big but) even though ingredients are right and yes, it actually happen just as shown in the movie (it can be checked in her biography, yes she did spit out and was rejected on her first recording audition, yes she faced the Ku Klux Clan, yes Ma Rainey sang ""Black Bottom Blues", yes she traveled in her own train caravan) after a while script rushes so much that everything becomes one big blur of short episodes piled on top of each other to the point that it really seems like cartoon version of Bessie's life, short nuggets and photo shots. Concerts. Click. Racists. Click. Dominating boyfriend-turned-husband-turned-manager. Click. Bootlegged booze. Click. Fights. Click. Pale white boys interested to make money out of her. Click. She's bisexual. Click.
No doubt movie is fascinating for young audience who are finally introduced to artist and those who have never heard of this feisty lady and her contemporaries might be impressed to find out that almost a century ago there were proud black women fighting like lionesses for their own place in the world. Not everybody was a maid, washerwoman or prostitute - Bessie, Rainey, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, Victoria Spivey, Lucille Bogan and Sippie Wallace (to name just a few) were heroines of their time and even though they represented "sin" it was still better option than to scrub the stairs in Baltimore. So on one side it works as reminder about important chapter in American history and kudos to good intentions, it might intrigue kids to search for original recordings.
Where the film fails is to dig just a little deeper under the surface and explain reasons for Bessie's behavior - we all understand she was this brilliant artist but what we see in the movie is woman who drinks, fights, cusses and basically intimidates everyone around. It is a testament to Queen Latifah's acting that she suggests vulnerability hidden deep inside under all that bravado and there were few short scenes (mostly when she is alone with herself, coming home after the concerts) that glimpse in direction where this movie did not dare to go and which would work much better had the creators or script writers decided to explore her inner world instead of giving us point-by-point well-known snapshots. Curiously, film decidedly ends on a upbeat note, going so far to even present Bessie's triumph in Carnegie Hall (which never happened) and completely ignoring circumstances around her death. I have been living with her music for decades now so naturally after initial excitement about the movie I feel saddened that this big chance is missed now and since it took 78 years from her death for her story to finally reach the movie screen, I doubt that in my life I will see another attempt.
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