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The most influential, creative, and emotional blues singer from the 1930s through 1959, Billie Holiday may have attracted a whole new generation of fans through this 1972 film biography. Though the film is not historically accurate about her life and her relationship with Louis McKay (played by Billie Dee Williams), it is effective in demonstrating the traumas of her early life, the color bar which prevented her from singing in many whites-only venues, her drug and alcohol addictions (which eventually led to her death at age forty-four of liver and heart disease), and the events which led to many of her most famous songs.

Diana Ross, as Billie, is passionate and driven, and her portrayal of Billie in the midst of drug withdrawal is heart-rending and effective. Playing the role "full out," Ross deals with the script she has been given, and she richly deserves her Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Female Newcomer in this screen debut. A consortium of scriptwriters, which drew on the frank, but partly fictionalized, autobiography Billie wrote with William Dufty in 1956, has omitted or changed many aspects of her life in order to make the film more unified and dramatic, creating a film that creates even more myths about Billie.

Billy Dee Williams is terrific as Louis McKay, appearing slick and smooth at the beginning, but showing subtle changes of feeling as he is drawn into Billie's orbit and provides some stability for her. The accompanist (Richard Pryor) seems genuinely to care for her, as, it seems, does Reg Hanley (James T. Callahan), though the reasons Harry Bradford (Paul Hampton) has for getting her hooked on drugs is not clear. Ross is surprisingly good when she sings Billie's songs, copying her phrasing and creating a sound that somewhat resembles hers, though Billie's gutsy heart is missing.

Nominated for Best Actress (Diana Ross), Set Decoration and Art Direction, Costumes (Bob Mackie), Best Music/Scoring, and Best Story and Screenplay, this is a dramatic and showy film about a singing legend's tragic life, but it is more entertainment than biography, especially in its emphasis on the Reg Hanley band. Though one would not know this from the film, Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie also played important roles in Billie's career. Mary Whipple
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on August 20, 2005
In her first feature film Diana Ross delivers a tour de force performance as Billie Holiday not only capturing the Holiday persona but delivering mightly on the Holiday sound. The soundtrack did shoot straight to #1. From a child in pig tails playing hopscotch to her satin gowned debut at carnegie hall Ross delivers a flawless performance worthy of an oscar and indeed was nominated for one.The chemistry between Ross and Billy Dee Williams ( Lando of the Star wars saga ) smolders on screen,the way they play off each other is touching. Ross`s reaction upon first seeing Billy Dee Williams is shear brilliance for they have never looked finer on film. Richard Pryor as Piano Man adds a spark of humor as only he can Other notable performances include Isabell Sanford (of the Jeffersons)as the Madam and Scatman Crothers (One Flew Over The Cuckoo`s Nest, The Shining) as Big Ben. The exchange between these two in a brothel is classic, the sense of delivery, the timing, its hard not to think of Ross as a seasoned pro. She holds her own and delivers a touching portrayal, she makes you believe she is Billie Hoilday. And then there is the singing. Ross takes on the Holiday catalog with a hunger unsurpassed, her renditions of Good Morning Heartache, God Bless The Child, Strange Fruit and others rival that of Holiday herself. To think that a singer with no acting experince, sans a few television spots from the Motown stable had it in her to tackle the heavy handed material in this movie makes this film even more of a must see.
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on January 28, 2000
This biography loosely based on the tragic life of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday is a beautifully shot and art directed film. It also contains one of the best soundtrack recordings in movie history. But the facts about Holiday's life have been so condensed here that it borders on fiction. If you can get past the fictionalized storyline and just accept what you are being shown as a good story, you will ultimately be moved by the dramatic portayals in the movie.
Diana Ross tackled this role like a hungry dog might attack a piece of raw sirloin. She is astonishing both in her performance and her unique beauty. I literally gasped watching her during the heroin withdrawal scences it is so real, and her ability to mood swing from conivingly sweet, to wild eyed hellion is nothing short of brilliant!
I highly recommend this film especially if you've only seen The Wiz, and think Miss Ross can't act.
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on January 27, 2003
Although she is a magnificent singer and has acted in numerous movies, I believe this to be one of the few films in which Ms Ross ever showcased any stellar acting ability. I agree with the reviewer that implied she left her real acting talent somewhere along the Yellowbrick Road.

This movie gives but a glimpse of the grief, heartache and loss experienced by Billie Holiday in her tragically short life. Some visual images used in the movie are quite intense and emotionally riveting. They make it easy to understand how the 'blues' are truly experienced.

Ms Ross's smooth jazzy vocals resonate the soundtrack with a contrasting clarity to Holiday's original recordings but superbly capture the emotional intensity of Billie's vaccilating depression and addiction.

Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor are excellent in supporting roles. Williams provides the love and compassion that just aren't enough to rescue Holiday from the depths of her addiction. Pryor and Scatman Crothers (in a small role) add some islands of comic relief to the generally depressed mood.

Lady Sings the Blues is for those who want to get a glimpse of the tragic life of Billy Holiday. It's also for those who want to see Ms Ross's best dramatic performance and won't be upset with her 'smoother' vocal renditions of the Lady Day songbook.
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on September 27, 2004
This movie is of epic proportion. Diana Ross most definitely deserved an Oscar for her depiction of the late great Billie Holiday. Even though I already have the VHS, I would like to purchase it on DVD.
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on April 4, 2003
When Berry Gordy announced that Diana Ross was to play Billie Holiday in a biopic, jazz "purists" were outraged. They blasted that the "plastic princess of pop" couldn't possibly play Lady Day for the following reasons:
1 There was no physical resemblance between Lady Day and Diana - Billie wasn't a slim woman.
2 Diana's musical heritage haled from a different era to Holiday's.
3 At the age of 28, Diana simply hadn't been on the planet long enough to even dream of portraying one of the greatest jazz singers who ever lived. How dare she!
So, it was clear from the outset that Diana had a lot to prove, and that there were critics who were itching to see her and Motown fall flat on their faces. When Lady Sings the Blues premiered in the US, Diana proved the critics wrong. I must say, that I was around 12 or 13 (in the early 80s) when I watched this movie for the first time on British TV. At that time, I had no idea who Billie Holiday was. I was bowled over by Diana's electric performance, and this prompted me to buy Holiday's music and learn more about her turbulent life.
The film is loosely based on Holiday's autobiography. Holiday's three husbands were whittled down to just one - Louis MacKay, played brilliantly by Diana's co-star, Billie Dee Williams. The first scene of Holiday being thrown into a padded cell like a piece of meat - and then going completely crazy before being restrained in a straight jacket- sets the tone for the movie. Billie's mind then travels back in time to her teenage years, when she worked in a brothel in Baltimore.
Billie's love affair with music ignites when she's sent to Harlem by her mother to meet a "Sister Edson from church". What her mother didn't know was that Sister Edson ran a brothel of her own. Billie wanders around the neighbourhood where she slips into a nightclub. To her, it was the most amazing place she'd ever been to. It's here that she sets eyes on Louis MacKay for the first time, and falls in love with him.
The movie's a roller coaster ride through Billie's jazz and blues career, her drug addiction, arrests, and it climaxes with the majestic, emotional finale. Diana's acting performance was superb - she threw herself into the role, and it was clear that she was touched by Billie's life. There are certain scenes where Diana simply screams `gimme an Oscar!' especially when Billie withdraws in her padded cell, with her doctor and Louis doing everything they can to help her - it's a touching and desperately sad scene. There are other scenes: the one where she and Louis have a fight over her bag of heroine is ferocious. ...Gripping stuff!
Diana's interpretations of Holiday's songs were outstanding. She didn't attempt to impersonate Holiday, yet she managed to capture the emotion and mood of each song with great effect. Her razor sharp phrasing and crystal clear diction were stunning - even to the point of being eerie. Just listen to "Strange Fruit" (not the most comfortable song to listen to). The music score, written by Michael Legrand, and conducted by Gil Askey, is beautiful, sweeping and moving.
Credit must also go to the support cast. Billie Dee Williams and Diana have great on-screen chemistry. They teamed up again for "Mahogany" and "Red Hot Rhythm & Blues". Richard Prior was hilarious as the Piano Man, and he provided a bit of light relief. James Callahan deserves a mention too, as the caring Reg. Billie's mother, Mama Holiday, is played sympathetically by Virginia Capers.
While this movie is not a totally authentic account of Billie Holiday's life, I feel that Diana captures the essence of her legend. At the end of the movie, I sensed that Holiday was beautiful, talented, vulnerable and complex. Most of all, she was a human being who battled with the many demons in her life. In the end, that battle proved too much for her.
Lady Sings the Blues was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including "Best Actress" for Ross. She didn't win, but I don't think it mattered - the film speaks for itself, and being nominated - in the leading female category - was a great achievement. All was not lost, however as Ross picked up a Golden Globe for her performance, plus a host of other awards.
It's a shame that Diana didn't get the guidance of a strong film director after Lady Sings the Blues. However, Diana's outstanding performance in "Out of Darkness" restored her reputation as talented actress, and proved that with the right material, she could rise to the challenge.
I have no hesitation of recommending this movie.
A note for UK viewers: you'll need a VHS with NTSC playback to watch this movie.
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on November 24, 2002
Soul music legend Diana Ross broke down many racial barriers, opening doors for many black entertainers. Lady Sings The Blues is a prime example of her remarkable acheivements. Diana Ross wasn't, to be fair, the most ideal Billie Holiday but she was certainly perfect for this vehicle. Lady Sings The Blues is loosley drawn from Holidays autobiography of the same name though many incidents are fictionalised and re-worked for dramatic clarity. Die-hard Holiday fans were up in arms for the films often fictionalised account but they all rightly joined in to praise Diana Ross' remarkable and truly dynamic silver screen debut. Incredibly Diana had never before taken an acting lesson in her life and her only acting credit before this was a guest apperance in the U.S T.V series, Tarzan, playing a singing nun. She certainly didn't garner any such recognised praise for that role and critics doubted almost immediatley that she could truly carry out this challenging role. However once the film was released critics were silenced and astounded by Diana's masterful playing.
The film follows Billie as a teenager where she worked as a prostitute in a brothel run by her mothers friend and chronicles her rise and fall of the days greatest Jazz/Blues singer. It largely focuses on her complex relationship with her husband Louis Mckay, which is played superbly by Billy Dee Williams and details her horrific, physical decline into heroin addiction. There is also a fantastic supporting turn from Richard Pryor as the Piano Man who really bites into his part and makes the most of every scene he is in. But the ultimate fact here is that Diana Ross is the star and she is just incredible. Watching her play those harrowing scenes as Billie goes through cold turkey from her heavy heroin addiction makes you appreciate her deep, raw talent. Her acting is purley instinctive and as one critic of the day accuratley pointed out that where ever the eyes of the film makers may have been, the heart of its star is in the right place! She doesn't once try and emulate Holidays vocal style, instead making the songs surprisingly her own. She completley escaped and shook off the traditional Motown sound and never does a Supreme type number. What emerges in her vocal performances on the films soundtrack are some of her strongest, most passionate work. Her diction and phrasing is so precise and when you hear her sing such quintessential jazz classics such as Strange Fruit, Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be), Good Morning Heartache, God Bless The Child and the tear-jerking, My Man, you just get goose bumps from her almost stark delivery. What Lady Sings The Blues often draws upon is racial predujice, a fact which Diana could certainly relate to herself where she and most other Motown atists had been subjected to as they began their career's. There are some moving scenes as Billie saw a black man hung from a tree during one of her early tours. It sends shivers down the spine when she sings Strange Fruit which had been based on that horrific occurence Billie had witnessed. Diana projects the unhappy and vulnreable side to Billie which some didn't now about and plays it out with such conviction and gritty realism. The whole thing is also complimented by the thirties ambience such as the nightclubs and drug culture which are superbly and convincingly evoked. Diana certainly deserved her oscar nomination for Best Actress and its a shame she didn't win as it was such a remarkable debut but receiving the oscar nomination in the first place was an acheivement alone and she certainly deserves to be proud of her performance in this film. On the whole a compelling and riveting part-true, part-fictionalised account of Lady Days often traumatic life.
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on May 14, 2003
If I could give this movie 10 stars, I would but Amazon only allows 5. The sheer magic and artistry that Diana Ross translated on celluloid and vinyl surrounding this project is nothing short of a masterpiece. While history tells us that the "Motown Machine" cost Ross the Academy Award she was robbed of, her brutally honest acting as well as her stellar singing still leaves one coming away from viewing and listening with their heads shaking in awe. She NEVER tried to imitate Holiday's distinct sound; Ross knew better. It was Holiday's frantic and unpredictable PHRASING that Madame duplicated and all you have to do is compare her "You've Changed" with Holiday's and they are so's spooky.
If we can only get this film on DVD with PLENTY OF EXTRA'S MOTOWN and of the film will be truly grateful. You'd never imagine just how much. Good job Diana.
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on August 26, 2000
I'm not a Diana Ross fan, but in this movie, she was excellent and convincing as Lady Day. Dynamic performances by Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor as well. My only fault with this movie that it was not Billie Holiday's real story. It was supposedly based on William Dufty's bio of Billie's life, but I saw very few similarities between what I read in the Dufty book and what eventually came to the screen. "Lady Sings The Blues" is filled with inaccuracies and purely fictitious situations. Even Berry Gordy, Ross' one-time lover and mentor, admitted that the script was bogus, but it still was very riveting. This was Ross' first film and even though she never took a drama lesson in her life, she pulled this off with no problem. Definitely worth checking out.
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VINE VOICEon July 12, 2006
By the early 70's jazz legend Billie Holiday had been gone for over a decade and her harrowing life was truly an incredible story that was bound to hit the big first choice to play Lady Day was another magnificent Jazz/Soul/Pop legend Nancy Wilson who had just turned in a passionate and impressive "guest star" performance of a singer all strung out on one of the popular television dramatic series...looked like she was a shoo-in for that plum role but it was Diana who had Berry Gordy and at that moment that was the ticket! Being a huge fan of Motown music I was less than thrilled though when I heard that Diana Ross was going to portray the troubled and brilliant jazz legend but out of curiosity ran to see "Lady Sings The Blues" the week of its release and was totally impressed with the drama and pathos created by the great performances contained in this ground-breaking motion picture that also made a romantic leading man out of Billy Dee Williams plus Richard Pryor gives a winning performance as well. Diana Ross is simply tremendous and amazing to watch in this moody atmospheric motion picture classic that still holds up today as an engrossing drama of a singer who had brilliant and uniquely original talent but made all the wrong choices in life...Bravo to everyone involved with this earthy and deeply moving and yes somewhat troubling and disturbing classic!!! Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli both gave magnificent career defining performances the same year and these grand and legendary performers should have gone on to greater heights in motion pictures but a burned-out Hollywood no longer knew how to put together great projects for great female talent and this sadly still holds true today! Since the 70's a legendary screen career such as a Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, etc. would not or could not have happened and this is a sad loss to the audience and those many artists whose career's have floundered with their wonderful talent left untapped...Hollywood in many ways has really lost the way and movies today for the most part look and feel completely fake and manufactured..."Lady Sings The Blues" is from another era where talent reined supreme and this era is sadly gone and it would take nothing short of a miracle for it to return.
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