Billie Holiday is known to be one of the greatest jazz singers of all times. Obtaining the unique character and rather interesting biography, she gained the world-wide popularity. She left the great mark in the history of jazz. Being the great figure in the world of music, her life and songs could not live the film makers indifferent as they presented the great scenario. “In fact it was only from the late 1970s/early 1980s that British and American cinema fully began to consider the life stories of rock and pop musicians as plausible topics” (Inglis 78).
That is why the biographic movie Lady Sings the blues which appeared in 1972 was absolutely right on. Of course, the main purpose of this film is to elucidate some facts from the controversial biography of the singer and warm the peoples interest in jazz music up, using the famous name as the best advertisement.
The film was contradictory taken by the audience, collecting either excited laudable words or totally blaming reviews “Lady Sings the Blues fails to do justice to the musical life of which Billie Holiday was a part, and it never shows what made her a star, much less what made her an artist.” (Kooijman 178). Even after her death Billie Holliday continued to provoke people for judging everything, connected with her.
The movie Lady Sings the blues by Sidney J. Furie starts with the flashback which presents the image of Billies childhood. Severe conditions of her surrounding are shown. Since her childhood she had to earn money by hard work. She was working in the brothel as a housekeeper for a very little sum of money. Moreover, she was raped and this fact should have made the great influence on her life. Being tired form hard work, she chooses the easiest way and becomes a prostitute.
However, trying to change her life she goes to the night club in order to become a show girl, but the fate ordered otherwise. Failed to succeed, she became a singer in the same night club. From these episodes the viewer can understand the influence that Billies environment made on her. Being forced to go on the stage in order to earn some money, she started singing not because of some high thoughts or reasons, though music always was vital for her and she was always singing, accompanying the old phono.
The chance helped her to become a singer and she was trying to do her best in order to escape from Harlems brothel in New York and never return there. In her career of a singer which is shown in the film, she meets many obstacles she has to overcome. Many of them she made by herself, however, there are some connected with her race and they are shown in the film.
The first and very important scene describing tensed racial relations was Billie witnessing the results of the lynching of Afro-American. The view of crying women and unfair treatment impressed her greatly. She writes a controversial song “Strange Fruit” as the reaction on it. The presentation of this song is made in an interesting manner. The first beats can be heard as the background when Billie is going by bus. It is made for the viewer to understand the origin of this song.
Then however, the beats sound louder and louder and the viewer can see the scenes of Billie singing on the stage combined with the scenes of her moving in the bus. The viewer watching her performance can notice how emotional she is and how deeply she is involved in the process. She is staying in the middle of the stage singing in the front of full house almost motionless. The great change in the way she looks at the beginning of the film and now can be observed.
She looks like an elegant lady and it is difficult to guess about her nature and past. She faints in the middle of the song and it is rather symbolic moment because she can either faint from the drugs, she started to take, or from the emotional strain of this song. One more interesting fact the viewer can observe hear is the auditory. She is singing to white people. Her songs made them forget about her ethnicity and listen with bated breath. The great power of true art is shown here.
The other scene connected with the racial bias was the fragment describing her presupposed radio debut in New York. She was denied to perform on the radio because of the color of her skin, as the main radio sponsor, a big soap company, was against the appearing of the black-skinned people in the air of their radio company.
The film gave birth to the great number of different reviews. One of them by Vincent Canby states that the film, made on the basis of such great topic, turned to be dull, uninteresting and strange, with the great drawbacks in the scenario which seem to be illogic “They’ve made trite and meaningless such things as the child rape, indentured servitude in a Harlem whorehouse and an addiction to drugs that eventually contributed to Lady Day’s death at age 44” (Canby para. 3).
The only thing, the author of the review appreciates in the movie, is the beauty of Diana Ross. However, another review by Roger Ebert presents the alternative point of view. The author admits the fact, that all these biographic films are made according to the well known cliché. “The formula is so firmly established that stars even seem to follow it consciously” (Ebert para. 5).
However, he does not mind the usual organization of the movie, pointing out the brilliant play of Diana Ross and her miraculous transformation from the servant in the brothel to the wonderful lady, also especially admitting the great sounding of the film. To be honest, the first review seems to be more plausible as the fact of violence and its influence on her further career is not revealed clearly. That is why the plot seems to be very bad organized and illogic, leaving the impression of something not being said.
The movie Lady Sings the blues tries to reveal the biography of Billy Holliday in the manner, peculiar for the biographic movies. From this point of view the film succeeded as the viewer can get to know some facts from the biography of the famous singer.
However, from the other point of view the movie was rather predictable, describing her poor childhood, drug addiction and other well known facts, which are typical for this kind of movies. The film does not make the viewer think about some hidden motifs of Billy Hollidays life and does not let the viewer any opportunity to look at her from the other, not accepted by the society point of view.
Canby, Vincent. Lady Sings the Blues (1972). New York Times. 1972.
Ebert, Roger. Lady Sings the Blues. RogerEbert.com. 1972.
Furie, Sydney. “Lady Sings the Blues”. Online video clip. YouTube. 2014.
Inglis, Ian. Popular music history on screen: the pop/rock biopic. 2007.
Kooijman, Jaap Triumphant Black Pop Divas on the Wide Screen: Lady Sings Blues and Tina: Whats Love Got to Do with Us. n.d.