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Sidney J. Furie
Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor
Writing Credits:
Terence McCloy, Chris Clark, Suzanne de Passe

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

Rated R.

Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
English Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 144 min.
Price: $17.99
Release Date: 2/23/2021

• Audio Commentary with Director Sidney Furie, Executive Producer Berry Gordy, and Artist Manager Shelly Berger
• “Behind the Blues” Featurette
• 7 Deleted Scenes


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Lady Sings the Blues [Blu-Ray] (1972)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 14, 2021)

At least as far back as Al Jolson, popular singers dreamed of movie stardom. With 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues, Diana Ross took her own stab at that form of success.

Based the story of legendary vocalist Billie Holiday, we open with Billie’s (Ross) 1936 jail stint due to drug possession. From there, we hop back to 1928 and see how young teenager Billie – born Eleanora Fagan - suffers from an impoverished existence in Baltimore, one in which she keeps shady company and gets raped by an older man.

Eventually Eleanora becomes a prostitute, but she attempts to find a way out of this life via her talents as a singer, one who adopts the name “Billie Holiday”. We follow her rise and fall, as Billie’s personal issues and drug addiction harpoon her career.

As I mentioned at the start, Blues marked Ross’s leap into films, and it couldn’t have gone better for her. The film earned five Oscar nominations, including one for Ross as Best Actress.

Surprisingly, Ross didn’t seem to try very hard to build a movie career after Blues. Ross starred in 1975’s Mahogany and 1978’s The Wiz but never made another feature film after that.

I never saw Mahogany but thought Ross seemed miscast in The Wiz, primarily due to her age. A role originally intended for a teen, the film adaptation modified Dorothy into an adult, but still one much younger than the then-34-year-old Ross.

That issue wouldn’t have been a problem if Ross displayed charisma in that film, but instead, her Dorothy seems uninspired. The Wiz had plenty of other issues, though, so I don’t lay its failure solely on Ross.

Because her character so dominates Blues, it becomes easier to see how the film might rise or fall on Ross’s shoulders, and for the most part, she does well – though again, we find her cast as a much too young character. At the movie’s start, then-28-year-old Ross attempted to portray Holiday as a 13-year-old.

That becomes the proverbial bridge too far, especially because Blues keeps Billie as a teen for much of its running time. Heck, even by the time the film catches up with its harrowing opening in jail, Billie was only 21, so the movie forces Ross to play much younger than her actual age through much of its span.

As such, Blues works better if you ignore Billie’s real age, and after the opening scenes with 13-year-old Eleanora – and Ross’s desperate attempts to act like a kid – we find her age more superfluous. While we know intellectually that Billie’s only a teen, that becomes borderline irrelevant to the plot, so it becomes easiest to ignore her true age and roll with the story.

Age or otherwise, Ross does a pretty good job as our lead, though she doesn’t sell Billie’s talents especially well. As a pop singer, Ross’s voice worked just fine, but as one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all-time, she doesn’t hold up as well.

Not that Ross embarrasses herself, of course. She brings perfectly competent vocals across the film.

However, much of the movie relies on our view of Billie as a major talent, a woman with a once in a generation voice. That’s not Ross, and because she sounds so thin, we find ourselves perplexed at all the praise Billie receives.

Ross does fine with the dramatic side of things, though Blues lacks an especially broad plot. Basically we get a lot of “Billie the junkie”, without much else to balance the narrative.

This tends to feel melodramatic, as we don’t really get a deep view of the movie’s subject. After our intro to Billie’s deprived childhood, we see her almost exclusively as a tormented addict, without much else to leaven the tale.

Obviously Billie’s drug use became a major part of her biography, but Blues leaves little room for much else. We alternate musical performances with addiction scenes and don’t tend to get a lot of information otherwise.

Honestly, Blues comes across like a vehicle for Diana Ross, Major Entertainer. She can sing! She can act!

And she can, but while Blues succeeds as a showcase for Ross’s talents, it seems less worthwhile as an actual movie. Too long and too insubstantial, the movie fails to explore its subject matter in a satisfying manner.

The Disc Grades: Picture B-/ Audio B-/ Bonus B-

Lady Sings the Blues appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. At least partially due to the source, this became a fairly good but inconsistent image.

Sharpness usually worked fine, as the majority of the film brought appealing – if not dynamic - delineation. Some softness popped up at times, but those instances failed to become a real distraction.

No shimmering or jagged edges appeared. Grain felt light but natural, and no edge haloes materialized. In terms of print flaws, I saw a handful of small specks but nothing much.

Despite the low-key production design that matched the film’s era, colors seemed appropriate. The film leaned toward a sepia feel with occasional instances of bolder hues, and these came across appropriately.

Black levels were also quite good, and shadow detail usually appeared appropriately opaque. This won’t be regarded as a demo image but the movie usually looked fine.

The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack of Blues opened up the image in a modest way. Music demonstrated decent stereo imaging, and atmospheric scenes got a boost.

The mix didn’t go nuts, though, as it stayed reasonably true to its single-channel roots. Surrounds added some light reinforcement of the elements but not much else, so you’ll be excused if you don’t even notice their presence.

The quality of the audio was solid. Dialogue usually integrated well with the picture and sounded relatively natural and intelligible. Effects were reasonably realistic and lacked much distortion.

The score and songs felt pretty full. For material from an older source, Blues sounded pretty good, if not a track with much of a soundscape.

A few extras round out the package, and we open with an audio commentary from director Sidney Furie, executive producer Berry Gordy, and artist manager Shelly Berger. All three sit together for this running, screen-specific discussion of budget and production issues, cast and performances, music, and various other domains.

For the movie’s first half-hour or so, we get a decent array of notes about Blues. However, before too long, the track becomes much less interesting.

In general, the participants tend to praise the movie and talk about how groundbreaking and significant it was. Too little information appears across the 144-minute running time to make this an effective track.

Behind the Blues runs 23 minutes, six seconds and brings comments from co-writer Suzanne de Passe, Black Hollywood Education & Resource Center executive director John M. Forbes, Black Hollywood Education & Resource Center founder/president Sandra Evers-Manly, costume designer Bob Mackie, and actors Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams.

“Blues” looks at the film’s path to the screen and story/screenplay, cast and performances, Furie’s impact on the production, photography and costumes, the film’s release and legacy. “Blues” tends toward a fluffy tone, but it comes with a reasonable amount of information.

Seven Deleted Scenes fill a total of 21 minutes, three seconds. These offer moderate expansions of character issues, with the biggest boost to Louis.

We also see more of Billie’s relationship with her mother and her drug use. None of them add much to the overall narrative, and since the movie already runs too long, I can’t say they needed to make the final cut.

As a biography of a music legend, Lady Sings the Blues doesn’t explore its subject especially well. It tends to come across as a show reel for its lead actor’s skills more than a coherent story. The Blu-ray brings generally positive picture and audio as well as a mix of bonus materials. Though it comes with some positives, Blues doesn’t work especially well as a movie.

Viewer Film Ratings: 2 Stars Number of Votes: 1
0 3:
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