Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lady Sings The Blues

One of the great things about the Internet is its ability to capture feedback on everything, from newspaper stories to new product introductions. I find this feature especially wonderful when it comes to books and films. has milked this to the max.

What the Internet is doing here is decentralizing information. Instead of being told what to think by a reviewer (who might be a shill) you have an accumulated collection of perspectives. It can be quite engaging to simply sift through the reviews. Often you get a pretty clear picture of what to expect before you fork over your bread...

My favorite site for movie reviews is, the Intenet Movie Data Base. It has millions of reviews, including a dozen or so by yours truly.

About two weeks ago I watched the 1972 film Lady Sings The Blues, starring Diana Ross in the role of Miss Billie Holiday. I saw the film when it came out, having gone to see it because I was a fan of the Motown sound of the Supremes. At the time I knew nothing of who Billie Holiday was, but naive enough to believe the story in the movie corresponded to her life. This time around, I did enjoy the film again but in light of reviews like the following, and a lifetime of seeing this kind of movie making, I did not confuse Ms. Ross with Lady Day.

A Slap In Lady Day's Face, 6 November 2005

Author: jmorris236 from United States
When this film opened, I was a 17 year old fan of Diana Ross. I thought her fabulous and the film great. Funny how time can change perspective and viewpoint so completely. Shortly thereafter, a local newscast interviewed several musicians who had worked with Billie Holiday and were picketing the theatre where "Lady" had debuted. One said that the film was an insult to her memory, and her true life story was far more tragic than the film had suggested. More importantly, he said that Billie's music had suffered most in the attempt to film her life. He said that Miss Ross had failed to capture the essence of Billie's music, and that this film had reduced Miss Holiday's standing as the most important Jazz singer who'd ever lived to that of a mediocre pop vocalist. He implored everyone to check out the real Billie Holiday by purchasing some of her records. I had two immediate thoughts. One was, "Hmm, I thought the film was pretty good, but this guy seems to know what he's talking about". The other was, "Billie Holiday made records?" In fact, she made hundreds of records between 1935-59, but in over two hours of screen time, not one of them is even mentioned.

This review by rooprect is even more telling.

Author: rooprect from New York City
Before watching this I knew that it wouldn't be factually correct. I knew that Diana Ross would sing in her own style without trying to imitate the real Billie Holiday. And I knew that this film was hated & protested by Billie's real life associates and family. I watched it anyway expecting to enjoy it the same way I enjoyed Amadeus even though it stepped all over the real Mozart. I mean, c'mon people, if we want history we should go to a library, not a movie theatre.

But with all that said I was still horribly put off by the lack of continuity with the spirit of Billie's life. For one thing, Diana's portrayal made Billie look like a blabbering halfwit. Even in the scenes where she's supposed to be stone cold sober she acts like a flake. If you've ever seen footage of the real Billie, you know that the real Lady was a tough, sharp, smart human being. You don't survive on the streets of New York by being an idiot the way she's shown to be in the film.

I could share more but you can also check them out yourself. There were more favorable than unfavorable reviews, but this pair of comments gave me pause. What did you think of this film?

The painting of Lady Day at the top of this page, acrylic on canvas paper, was painted this past month while listening to her one-of-a-kind voice as she sang the blues.

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