‘Lady Sings The Blues’ Blu-Ray Review

Few things connect with an audience as much as seeing the lives of musical icons depicted on the big screen. Musical biopics draw from the love and memories we have of the artist from the past to act as the foundation to tell a bigger, more enthralling narrative. In the past year alone, we have had two projects exploring the life of the iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday on screen. The first was the documentary Billie, which gave a great amount of context to the tragic life of the singer but was ultimately flawed in its execution. Most recently, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday earned Andra Day an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal, which was by far the best part of a messy film. This was not the first time a performer had earned a nomination for portraying Billie Holiday. In 1972, legendary artist Diana Ross made her film debut in Lady Sings The Blues. After watching all three projects in close succession to one another, it is fascinating to dissect the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. 

The Billie Holiday at the beginning of Lady Sings The Blues is completely out of her mind as she is unjustly thrown in jail on drug charges as she is trying to detox. It is one hell of a way to begin a film, as we catch a glimpse of what will become of the sweet young girl we flashback to eight years earlier in 1928. At this time known as Eleanora Fagan (Diana Ross), the young lady is trying to avoid the evils of the brothels she works in as a housekeeper. If anyone is familiar with Holiday in the slightest, it is an unfortunate fact that harsh situations will meet her with an unyielding ferocity. One of the interesting choices that this film makes is the decision not to witness her evolution into Billie Holiday for almost an hour into the story. We get to know Eleanora as a person with dreams as she survives abuse based on her race, gender and class. She is a desperate figure who has to succumb to certain opportunities. It is only through music that Eleanora becomes Billie Holiday and her fortunes begin to change. 

As emotionally transfixing as the beginning of the film is, it is somewhat sullied by the fact that large swaths of it have been completely fabricated for dramatic purposes. Now, it is entirely possible to judge Lady Sings The Blues as its own entity and not something that needs to be slavish to the facts, but those who are more familiar with the particulars may find some developments a little eyebrow raising. For a short while, the film really soars as Billie Holiday becomes the person that we remember today. As is often the case with this particular figure, the embodiment of this role by our lead performer is the stuff of magic. Diana Ross gives her all as Holiday, and every section of her life offers something that will break your heart. The relationship that develops between her and Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams) has moments of hope, but like all things in Holiday’s life the way in which it plays out is complicated. Perhaps even more effective is the friendship she develops with the man known simply as “Piano Man” (Richard Pryor). He may be most known as a comedian, but Pryor delivers a stellar dramatic performance.

Everything appears to be in place to create something truly wonderful, but the script struggles as it heads toward the end of its nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime. There has to be a tragic downfall for the singer punctuated by drug addiction, multiple arrests and other personal drama. The way Holiday is introduced to drugs feels a bit like an after-school special, but that could be forgiven if the movie did something more substantial with her arc. As it stands, the last 45 minutes feel like the rehash of a similar scene until we reach the heartbreaking end. This may be my personal intolerance of how movies depict addiction coming through, but her struggles with these demons do not feel accompanied by any rising stakes. Diana Ross handles each scene with grace, but the movie feels a bit bloated by the time the credits start rolling. These quibbles aside, Lady Sings The Blues is the film that works best as a feature when compared to the three projects in contention. It lacks biographical truth, but emotionally and structurally the film does a lot right that the other projects struggle with in a grander fashion. Still, it feels like the definitive Billie Holiday story has not been told, which leaves one to wonder which combination of filmmaker and performer will be the one to knock it out the park. 

'Lady Sings The Blues' Blu-Ray Review

Video Quality

Lady Sings The Blues gets an upgrade on Blu-Ray courtesy of Paramount with a 1080p master in the original aspect ratio of 2:35:1. The transfer does not appear to be sourced from a fresh master, but it remains pretty strong throughout. This disc does not digitally manipulate the pleasing natural film grain that is present without being overly clumpy in the grain field. There are some nuanced, vibrant colors that make the film pop in a visually exciting way, even if the film primarily has a depressed palette. The skin tones look natural, and the presentation is not plagued by black crush. The shadow detail present in certain shots holds up way better than was expected. The presentation rarely lacks in the fine detail that you would hope for from a Blu-Ray upgrade. While a fresh remaster with a 4K scan would have been preferred to clean up some of the nicks and scratches, this Blu-Ray is a clear upgrade from the ancient DVD release.

Audio Quality

The Blu-Ray comes with a reserved Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless soundtrack that sonically represents the film in a straightforward manner. The activity is primarily contained to the front channels with little disbursement throughout the surround speakers. The lovely music that is so key to the character sounds good, but lacks the raw power that you feel it could possibly achieve. While music is vital to the story, it never overpowers the dialogue or other important information. The cutting dialogue, especially when delivered so acidically by Ross, comes through clearly and never falls victim to any digital anomalies. Rear speakers get very little in the way of activity, and low end support is practically nonexistent. This track is good, but never quite reaches the level of greatness.

'Lady Sings The Blues' Blu-Ray Review

Special Features

  • Audio Commentary: Executive Producer Berry Gordy, Director Sidney Furie, and Artist Manager Shelly Berger provide a thorough examination of this film from every angle. The trio relay very entertaining, honest anecdotes and point out scene-specific details that are worthwhile. This is one of the better tracks I have heard recently. 
  • Behind The Blues – Lady Sings The Blues: A 23-minute archival featurette in which the cast and crew discuss the origins of the project, the importance of Berry Gordy being tied to this project, the uncertainty over Ross taking the role, the direction of the film, the look of the film, the public and industry reception and much more. This is a really well done piece that is worth checking out. 
  • Deleted Scenes: Seven scenes totaling 21 minutes of unused material are included here that features Billie’s mother getting a bit too drunk at a party, additional scenes between Billie and Louis, Billie going to jail and more. These scenes are in very rough shape, but there is some interesting content here if you like the film. 

Final Thoughts

Lady Sings The Blues is the first of many attempts to tell the Billie Holiday story on screen, and, like all other projects, the results are something of a mixed bag. The total lack of care paid to adhering to the truth is not a huge detriment to this narrative, but Holiday fans would be well within their rights to balk at this depiction. Filmmakers just cannot seem to find the perfect way to tell this story in the most enthralling manner. Diana Ross does an amazing job as the iconic singer, but the movie itself never rises above pretty good thanks to its repetitive nature. Paramount Home Entertainment has provided a Blu-Ray upgrade that has a solid A/V presentation and a couple of interesting special features. This is worth checking out if you are a fan of the singer, but keep expectations tempered. 

Lady Sings The Blues is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray. 

Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.

Disclaimer: Paramount Home Entertainment has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.