‘Lady Sings the Blues’ still resonates today

(News4usonline) – Audiences have always been enamored with tragedy and heartbreak. The essence of melancholy that exudes out of celebrities is easily consumed by the public that demands an enormous amount of entertainment from their favorite artist.

In retrospect, it is easy to forget that those who we idolize and worship are not deities with infinite amounts of vitality, but humans with standard limitations.

This is the case for singer and songwriter, Billie Holiday, who has been a modern example of the essential cataclysmic career fraught with domestic abuse, drug use and an early demise. At 44 years old, Holiday died of Cirrhosis, a liver disease believed to be exacerbated by her heroin and alcohol addiction which can be attributed to her dense touring schedule and constant racism she endured while performing from the 1930s to the early 1950s.

Embed from Getty Images

The film “Lady Sings the Blues,” based on Holiday’s autobiography, was released in theaters 50 years ago and explores the perils of her early life as a maid for a brothel, her passion to become a singer and the subsequent issues of fame that preceded.

Although the film is filled with the basic cliches and banality that is seen in most biographical films, it is Diana Ross’ Golden Globe-winning and Academy Award-nominated portrayal of Holiday that gives the movie its identity.

It is almost difficult to believe how well Ross was able to convey the struggles and turbulent emotions that are needed for a character that is incredibly profound as Holiday. The amount of emotional range that is needed to give the character of Holiday a believable remorse tone without stepping into a parody or generic impersonation is outstanding.

It is almost surprising since Ross was known to emit a more energetic persona as a former singer of The Supremes, Motown’s most successful act.

Embed from Getty Images

However, “Lady Sings the Blues,” is a relentless melodrama that opens with a disheveled Holiday being dragged and pushed by police officers while in a lackadaisical haze as she is thrown in a padded room sobbing and screaming to get out.

The emotional parallels of a woman trapped inside a prison cell due to her own actions make for an amazing allegory of Holiday’s life with substance abuse. Ross has the capability to use her emotional range to showcase her talent as audience members are meant to feel the anguish and torment illustrated by her character as she wails and cries by herself.

Though somber, this is one of the best scenes of the film.

Over the years, there have been numerous documentaries and dramas that touch on the life of Billie Holiday. The most recent film entitled, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” was directed by Lee Daniels and stars Andra Day.

This film tells the story of Holiday’s controversial song “Strange Fruit.” Holiday wrote “Strange Fruit” after witnessing a public lynching. The film is at times beautifully lit with glossy cinematography that attempts to immerse the audience in the world of 1940s New York.

Regardless, there is a lack of intensity that is missing that “Lady Sings the Blues” is able to provide, and although Day may look more similar to Holiday, Ross’ performance still outshines even after 50 years.

Embed from Getty Images

The other principal role is Louis McKay, Holiday’s lover, played by Billy Dee Williams who performs in his patented sly and cool demeanor.  Even though Williams is usually typecast for these types of roles, there is an opportunity for him to explore his range, especially in the scene when he tries to take Holiday’s drugs away from her but she brandishes a razor in his face with the intent to harm.

The heartbroken McKay leaves dejected, unable to occupy the empty gap that has been filled with Holiday’s addiction.

A young Richard Pryor plays Piano Man that is pivotal in Holiday’s success by providing her with a gig at a nightclub that would ultimately become the beginning of her career. Pryor is more subtle in this film unlike his other comedic roles and stand-up specials, but he is also charming and lovable which makes the end of his story arch upsetting.

The film is more than a performance piece; it also encapsulates the struggles of being an African-American entertainer in the 1930s and 1940s when racism was prevalent. Along with Holiday’s traumatic pass and gurgling tour schedule, the unfound bigotry she encountered may have also contributed to her dangerous substance abuse.

After 50 years, “Lady Sings the Blues,” remains the best Billie Holiday biopic due to the strong performance by Ross. The movie would catapult Ross into a major celebrity that earned her notoriety and acclaim.

The soundtrack for the film would become number one on the U.S. album chart and Ross would continue to have a fruitful career as she would earn roles in “Mahogany” and “The Wiz.” Billie Holiday was a tragic figure with a cautionary tale that is best represented by this film.