In the bustling downtown section of this small town, where many of the people are Viking descendants, there is one movie theater. It was my good fortune to be downtown when the theater was featuring the Berry Gordy production of Lady Sings the Blues.
The star is Diana Ross. Her portrayal of Billie Holliday is excellent. There is no other way to describe her performance; nor is there a higher rating for the film. It was patently obvious that Ms. Ross put a great effort into studying Billie Holliday's music and personal life. She conveyed graphically those stages of Ms. Holliday's life that were introduced to the viewer; one saw youth, rebellion, and exuberance merge into the pseudo-"sophisticated Lady," who at heart was a sensitive young thing, bursting with anticipation—new job, new love, new career, new chance at life. Then came an opportunity: a road tour with an all-white band through the rural South and into the heartland of unreasoning violent death and the viciousness of the Ku-Klux-Klan. For Billie Holliday the effects of the tour were extreme fatigue, emotional shock, and a burning need to suppress ugly scenes and haunting memories and yet to continue to work and perform. The answer she was turned on to, incidentally by a white man, was drugs.
From this point on, the movie moves rapidly. We descend with Diana into Billie Holliday's private hell. We rise with her when love seemingly conquers all. We admire her strength as she undergoes treatment in a sanatorium, alone; we are shocked and angry at her arrest; we cry and celebrate with her friends, her joy at returning to her man, her life, her music; we cringe at the tortuous paths she follows back into show business, New York, and finally Carnegie Hall; we feel a terrible sense of loss, amid conflicting feelings of intense anger and raging futility, at her so unnecessary death. Circumstances—and white folks—dealt her too many blows; the only alternative she knew killed her.
Portrayals by the co-stars and supporting cast of Lady Sings the Blues is also excellent. On a scale of 0-5, they would rate a 6 from me. As any woman in the audience could attest, one could in no way fault Diana/Billie for her taste in men—more specifically for her choice of Louis McKay/Billy Dee Williams. Mr. Williams did not play a stereotypical Black male. He was strong, yet sensitive; a rock, yet he bent. One can only wishfully dream that either Billy Dee Williams (or the character he played) would step out of that celluloid strip and visit this part of the world, unencumbered by Diana, a wife, or a current girlfriend.
Richard Pryor as Piano Man played an equally warm and three-dimensional part. Berry Gordy should pray to whatever gods watch over his multi-million dollar enterprises and thank them for allowing him to hire Pryor and to considerably lengthen the Piano Man's role.
Although I am not an expert on the technical aspects of filming, even I can recognize expertise in a film when I see it. Such expertise, particularly in regard to the artistic handling of selected episodes that might otherwise have distorted the film or might have been distasteful is highly evident throughout the film. Particularly is that expertise apparent in regard to the dynamic blend of haunting music that was not quite Billie Holliday but also not the old Diana Ross of the "Motown Sound." Black and white still shots are used effectively for transitions; newspaper clippings, headlines, arid photographs are admirably employed to fill in and round out the story. Contrary to the current movie-makers creed, there are no all-consuming sex scenes, no all-powerful super studs, and no bludgeoning emphasis on violence. Lady Sings the Blues is just a tender, arresting film biography that tells the tale of one Black woman who fought for her life and her dignity and lost to an America that took all she had to give and gave so little in return.
If you have not yet seen Lady Sings the Blues—by all means go. See it. Find out what the blues is really all about.