Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Lady Di Sings the Blues

Last night I watched the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross (photo) as Billie Holiday. It is an extraordinary performance. And I mean extraordinary.

She sings all the songs herself and makes them her own, without consciously attempting to imitate Billie Holiday's singing style. At first I found this a little disappointing, but ultimately I think it was the best creative choice. It pays off in the course of the film.

Her acting delves deeply into the character of the jazz legend, absorbing the experiences endured. Gradually, as the story unfolds, the songs reflect more and more of the character and spirit of Billie Holiday's hard life, taking form in the expressiveness of Ross' singing. Toward the end of the film we readily imagine that it is Billie singing, notably with Don't Explain, Strange Fruit, God Bless the Child, and the title song, all Holiday compositions; this is when the signature nuances come through, naturally, as a result of a complete immersion in the role, and not through self-conscious imitations of vocal affectation.

An added bonus is Richard Pryor's performance as Piano Man, a wonderfully sweet and quirky friend to Billie. Much of his dialogue was improvised. Billie Dee Williams as Louis McKay, her gallant and debonair protector is also a delight. The natural rapport that Ross, Williams, and Pryor had as actors shows through between the characters they portray.

Ross had only recently said farewell to the Supremes when producer Berry Gordy saw her potential and gave her this challenging role. She knocked it out of the park.

I remember seeing Lady Sings the Blues when I was 16 or 17, ca. 1975. It was part of two double features in one weekend I enjoyed with my childhood friend Paul, a serious film buff who had a great influence in teaching me to appreciate the art of film-making. The other three films were The Godfather, The Conversation, and Silent Running. It was a big deal, because they were the first R-rated films I went to unaccompanied by an adult..and it was a lot to chew on. I'm still chewing on those movies.

I don't know if Silent Running stands the test of time─I suspect it might be a bit dated─but its message about the fragility of the earth's environment certainly is relevant today.

What strikes me about Lady Sings the Blues is how natural and realistic the dialogue and performances are. Considering the intensity of the experiences portrayed in the story and the lack of theatrical training of both Diana Ross and Richard Pryor it is...just as I said: extraordinary.

* * *

The DVD Special Collector's Edition (2005) includes a featurette with recent inteviews, as well as a great commentary track featuring director Sidney J. Furie, executive producer Berry Gordy, in which they reminisce affably and candidly about their experiences making the film, conveying their enthusiasm and pride with the project, sharing their insights, and remembering it all as if it were yesterday. Ross' manager Shelly Berger also contributes some to the commentary.
    From the day's playlist...

  • W.A. Mozart: Missa in C Major, K. 317: Krönungsmesse─Kölner Kammerchor; Collegium Cartusianum; Peter Neumann, conductor; Patrizia Kwella, Soprano; Ulla Groenewold, alto; Christoph Pregardién, tenor; Franz-Josef Selig, bass
  • Rock Me on the Water─Jackson Browne
  • Don’t Think Twice Its Alright─Bob Dylan
  • I’ll Cry Instead─The Beatles─A Hard Day’s Night
  • Air (Soprano): I Know That My Redeemer Liveth─The English Concert & Choir; Trevor Pinnock, conductor─Händel: Messiah
  • Ao Velho Pedro/Marie Pompoen─Clusone Trio─Love Henry
  • Flower Lady─Phil Ochs


Meg said...

"I don't know if Silent Running stands the test of time─I suspect it might be a bit dated"

Having seen it for the first time in the late 90s, I can tell you your suspicion was correct. I rented it because I'd heard the effects supervisor of 2001 had directed it. I found it interesting, but more a curiosity than anything else. In spite of my sympathy with the message, it failed to move me.

I'm going to put Lady Sings the Blues on my queue.

Puzzled said...

Thanks for the report...I won't seek Silent Running out too vigorously, but if I find it on the library shelf, I'll grab it. The kids will certainly get a kick out of the steadfast little robots.

And a warning about LStB...its not a meticulous, historical, or even accurate, portrayal of the events of Billy Holiday's life. I noticed that neither Gordy nor Furie claimed that it was. It appears to be only loosely based on Holiday's autobiography, which I really ought to read one of these days.