Film noir and musicals are my first and second favorite genres of movie respectively. The films are polar opposites—noir is dark and heavy and musicals are usually breezy and light—which explains a lot about me. I’m somewhat a pessimist about life, and I always see the worst in human beings. And yet, on occasion I get this burst of optimism about things, almost naively so. My love of these two genres amounts to some form of cinematic manic depression, and I will be discussing examples of each during Black History Mumf here at BMV. I’ve designated Mondays as “Musical Mondays,” a day that’s all singin', all dancin' and all cullud.
During last year’s Black History Mumf special, I spent two posts treating Diana Ross the way she allegedly treated the hired help. I called her Miss Ross, as she demanded to be called in Kitty Kelly’s book, but that’s about the nicest thing I did. I said the outfits she designed for the horrible film Mahogany made her look like a turkey, and that she was too damn old to play Dorothy in Sidney Lumet’s movie version of The Wiz. As a result, I received several E-mails from pissed off sistahs asking “how dare you disrespect Diana?!!” and calling me everything but a child of God. I also received a weave that ticked suspiciously like a bomb. People thought I hated Miss Ross, which is simply not true. So for our first Musical Monday, I shall dispel this rumor. And no, it has nothing to do with my possibly being held hostage by a rabid Diana Ross fan holding a sledgehammer and a DVD copy of Misery. I just want to clear up a misconception.
One man's dramatic license is another man's outright lies. Jazz historians and purists had a lot of reasons to hate Lady Sings the Blues. The film, based on Billie Holiday's autobiography, took so many liberties with the singer's story that it was criticized for being mostly fabrication. The biggest lie for some people is slapped right on the poster. Right above the superbly realized microphone and handcuffs motif are the words Diana Ross IS Billie Holiday. "Like hell she is!" yelled out more than one jazz purist.
My parents argued about a lot of things when I was growing up, but the only movie-related item they bitched about was this film. My Pops loved Diana Ross, but was a bigger jazz lover who had little use for her versions of Holiday songs. My Mom swore up and down that Diana did a better job on the songs than Lady Day. My Pops would try to explain his position to my Mom by playing a Billie Holiday record. My Mom would counter with Miss Ross. More argument would ensue.
As a kid, I thought both artists sounded like cats. I preferred Ella Fitzgerald, because she could bust glass with her voice. Plus her scatting sounded like she was cursing. As an adult, I still think Ella is the greatest jazz singer, but I've grown a fond appreciation for Lady Day. Her voice haunts numerous memories of me just sitting around in my room as a kid; it would drift in from the record player on waves that seemed as fragile as her voice could be. I'd replace her words with meow, because I was that kind of brat, but I grew to understand why she was so revered.
Casting the former lead of the Supremes as one of the most beloved jazz singers, in her debut feature no less, was a recipe for disaster. Holiday was a complicated character with a penchant for abusive men and the favored drug of jazz musicians; the possessor of a voice that was thin yet unmistakable. Some considered her the greatest jazz singer to pick up a microphone, and Berry Gordy had cast someone who neither looked nor sounded like her in a movie of her life. Regardless of one's opinion of the result, Lady Sings the Blues has a large place in Black History as part of a historic set of circumstances that occurred during the 1972 Oscar season.
But first, let's get this out of the way:
Diana Ross ain't Billie Holiday, and Lady Sings the Blues ain't exactly her life story either. But if you can get past that, and take both of these for what they are rather than what they advertise, there is much enjoyment to be had. If nothing else, Lady Sings the Blues may have the greatest pick up line ever delivered by a player.
"You want my arm to fall off?"
With that line, Billy Dee Williams sealed his fate as the man the sistahs swooned over. Director Sidney J. Furie has that arm enter the frame at the bottom left, attached to a $20 bill. After the line, cin-togger John Alonzo brings a close-up of the face of Colt 45 and Cloud City out of the darkness and into the hearts of women everywhere. It's not Williams' first scene—he has an earlier entrance that would make Bette Davis envious—but it's his first line of dialogue and he has you at hello. Williams plays Louis McKay, who meets Billie early in her career and forms one half of the love story that flows through Lady Sings the Blues. In real life, McKay met Holiday late in her life and was far less friendly than he's depicted. And he damn sure didn't look like Billy Dee.
Miss Ross plays Billie from a teenager to her concert at Carnegie Hall, an event that did take place though not in the timeframe the movie places it. We first meet her working as a maid in a whorehouse run by Weezy Jefferson. Billie is so into her music that she fails to sense the danger lurking when a drunk older man tries to buy her. After finishing her job, she is left home alone by Donna from Sanford and Son, only to be sexually assaulted by the same drunk guy who tried buying her earlier. This leads her to seek out her mother in Buffalo, who sends her to work in yet another whorehouse. She starts out as a maid, then moves on up to ho'ing after a failed audition attempt at a club. It is during this attempt that she (and the audience) sees Louis McKay for the first time, and her reaction is priceless. Ross, all appropriately rendered elbows and knees as a teenage girl, slides down the wall and looks dumbfoundedly at the man. In his white suit, he's so dapper and gorgeous that, on the DVD extras, Williams says "I looked at me in that scene and fell in love." It's that electricity that powers the film's love story over the rocky way it's written.
Billie quits hooking after discovering her latest john is the guy who voiced Hong Kong Phooey (his rap about what he's going to do to Miss Ross' non-existent titties is a must-hear), and attempts to make it in the big bad world of entertainment. She goes back to the club where she tried before, and does a horrible job dancing. As the owner is about to put her out for the second time, the piano man saves her ass. "Can you sing?" he asks. Billie can, and she belts out a number that melts the owner's heart and makes the current singers jealous. She gets the job and the piano man becomes her best friend forever. When your BFF is Richard Pryor, you know you're headed for something drug-related.
Billie's first song is an eye-opener for her. She's expected to bring in $15 in tips for the house, but she didn't know that she'd have to make that one dollar at a time, and that every dollar she earned has to be picked up in a manner unsuitable for family viewing. After seeing her rival singer picking up cash in this fashion ("she can pick up the table with that!" brags the Piano Man), Billie attempts to sing without having to lift up her dress. She gets no tips until the aforementioned player decides to hand her that $20 bill.
McKay attempts to cash in on his investment later, but Billie plays hard to get. This scene shows the dynamite chemistry between Ross and Williams, not to mention his penchant for turning a line as smooth as a baby's behind. When he calls Billie on the carpet about her playing hard to get by citing that she used to work as a ho, Billie says "if that's what you thought, nigger, why'd you give me them damn flowers? Why didn't you just give me some money?" McKay pauses for effect, looks her right in the eye and says "I did." I shook with jealousy at this guy's ability to toss a line. One critic called Williams' role in this film "the Black Clark Gable." He wasn’t wrong.
Lady Sings the Blues is gorgeously rendered, from the cinematography to the Oscar nominated sets and costumes (the latter by Bob Mackie, marking his first collaboration with Miss Ross). You'd have to wait until Coming to America to get this kind of movie-movie gloss and treatment for people of color. Everyone looks sharp and classy, especially Miss Ross. This is a far cry from the self-designed train wrecks she wore in Mahogany. The period is lovingly recreated as well, with its cars, hairstyles and big band stages.
Blues is also unique in its ability to combine several different kinds of Hollywood movie types into one film AND give it a minority treatment. It's a period piece, a musical and a love story crossed with a cautionary tale. For all its screenplay bumps and historical inaccuracies, it somehow manages to stay stitched together all the way through. For its troubles (and it's troubled, all right), the screenplay also received an Oscar nomination, making history in the process. Along with Lonne Elder III, Suzanne de Passe became the first Black person to be nominated for a screenplay Oscar. As of 2009, she remains the only Black woman to earn this honor.
But what about the singing?
I honestly didn't have a problem with it. It's not Billie Holiday, but it's not bad either. I even confess to being a sucker for Ross' cover of Good Morning Heartache. Ross has a similarly thin voice, but her phrasing is no match for Holiday's. That phrasing, and her way with infusing lines with melancholy or joy depending on mood, is what makes Billie Holiday "Lady Day." Ross doesn't even try to aim for that, which is commendable. Instead, she makes the songs into Diana Ross covers. Since Billie did so many covers anyway (I'm in love with her take on "Until The Real Thing Comes Along"), Ross' versions didn't bother me. I was more irritated by the way the songs were worked into the narrative at times. For example, Billie sees a lynching and then the movie shows her singing Strange Fruit. It was way too cheesy a device.
Where Miss Ross really shines is in her performance. She's damn good here, convincing as both a lovesick teenager and a heroin addict willing to cut a man's throat for a fix. I was completely sold on her drug addiction. And for all her divatude, I am always astonished at how bad she's willing to look onscreen. I'm not talking about her duds in Mahogany, I'm talking about looking like Pure T. Shit because she's feenin' in a straitjacket while banging her head on the jail cell walls. There's a close-up of her early in the film that had me saying "I would NOT have let them photograph me like that!" For her work, she was awarded an Oscar nomination she absolutely deserved. And yes, she's better than Liza Minelli in Cabaret, though she's probably just as violent as Liza in real life.
As the two men in her life, Billy Dee Williams plays a fine mixture of frustration, concern and love for his leading lady, and Richard Pryor is comedy relief mixed with genuine pathos. Pryor's a better actor than he gets credit for, and the scene where he begs for help as he is being beaten to death is as chilling as his earlier scenes are hilarious. He was truly underrated.
Lady Sings the Blues falls into all the trappings and conventions of the biopic genre but gave Black viewers perhaps the first taste of a big budget Hollywood style romance featuring minorities. If we can't accept it as a credible biopic, we can at least get wrapped up in its execution and love it for what it is. As Lady Day once sang: "If that isn't love, it'll have to do. Until the real thing comes along."