Berry Gordy Jr and Motown sank $4 million into making the film debut of their star Diana Ross a success.
The film – a lavish vehicle which certainly had a satin show-biz patina – claimed to depict the life of Billie Holiday during the years 1933 to 1939. It showed a skinny teenager in the Baltimore ghetto grow into a beautiful young woman whose success as a jazz singer was undermined by her use of heroin as a balm for her wounds inflicted by racism.
But the film had only a token interest in the greatly gifted, greatly troubled artist whose life it purported to report. Billie Holiday, the individual, retreated further and further from view via a series of mindlessly romantic Hollywood cliches. Her music was delightfully rendered by Diana Ross, but the songs determined the structure of the film, and the entire script was built around vignettes which served as musical cues for Miss Ross.
Billy Dee Williams, ill-used as Miss Holiday’s mysteriously well-heeled true love, Louis McKay, threw a meaningful glance in Diana Ross’ direction, and she launched into Them There Eyes. The pair fell out, and she went into the bitter T’aint Nobody’s Business. She accidentally witnessed a lynching and immediately sang Strange Fruit.
Lady Sings The Blues showed precious little artistry – never mind integrity – where Billie Holiday’s life was concerned.
Billy Dee Williams
Sidney J. Furie