Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 14, 2021)
At least as far back as Al Jolson, popular singers dreamed of movie stardom. With 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues, Diana Ross took her own stab at that form of success.
Based the story of legendary vocalist Billie Holiday, we open with Billie’s (Ross) 1936 jail stint due to drug possession. From there, we hop back to 1928 and see how young teenager Billie – born Eleanora Fagan - suffers from an impoverished existence in Baltimore, one in which she keeps shady company and gets raped by an older man.
Eventually Eleanora becomes a prostitute, but she attempts to find a way out of this life via her talents as a singer, one who adopts the name “Billie Holiday”. We follow her rise and fall, as Billie’s personal issues and drug addiction harpoon her career.
As I mentioned at the start, Blues marked Ross’s leap into films, and it couldn’t have gone better for her. The film earned five Oscar nominations, including one for Ross as Best Actress.
Surprisingly, Ross didn’t seem to try very hard to build a movie career after Blues. Ross starred in 1975’s Mahogany and 1978’s The Wiz but never made another feature film after that.
I never saw Mahogany but thought Ross seemed miscast in The Wiz, primarily due to her age. A role originally intended for a teen, the film adaptation modified Dorothy into an adult, but still one much younger than the then-34-year-old Ross.
That issue wouldn’t have been a problem if Ross displayed charisma in that film, but instead, her Dorothy seems uninspired. The Wiz had plenty of other issues, though, so I don’t lay its failure solely on Ross.
Because her character so dominates Blues, it becomes easier to see how the film might rise or fall on Ross’s shoulders, and for the most part, she does well – though again, we find her cast as a much too young character. At the movie’s start, then-28-year-old Ross attempted to portray Holiday as a 13-year-old.
That becomes the proverbial bridge too far, especially because Blues keeps Billie as a teen for much of its running time. Heck, even by the time the film catches up with its harrowing opening in jail, Billie was only 21, so the movie forces Ross to play much younger than her actual age through much of its span.
As such, Blues works better if you ignore Billie’s real age, and after the opening scenes with 13-year-old Eleanora – and Ross’s desperate attempts to act like a kid – we find her age more superfluous. While we know intellectually that Billie’s only a teen, that becomes borderline irrelevant to the plot, so it becomes easiest to ignore her true age and roll with the story.
Age or otherwise, Ross does a pretty good job as our lead, though she doesn’t sell Billie’s talents especially well. As a pop singer, Ross’s voice worked just fine, but as one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all-time, she doesn’t hold up as well.
Not that Ross embarrasses herself, of course. She brings perfectly competent vocals across the film.
However, much of the movie relies on our view of Billie as a major talent, a woman with a once in a generation voice. That’s not Ross, and because she sounds so thin, we find ourselves perplexed at all the praise Billie receives.
Ross does fine with the dramatic side of things, though Blues lacks an especially broad plot. Basically we get a lot of “Billie the junkie”, without much else to balance the narrative.
This tends to feel melodramatic, as we don’t really get a deep view of the movie’s subject. After our intro to Billie’s deprived childhood, we see her almost exclusively as a tormented addict, without much else to leaven the tale.
Obviously Billie’s drug use became a major part of her biography, but Blues leaves little room for much else. We alternate musical performances with addiction scenes and don’t tend to get a lot of information otherwise.
Honestly, Blues comes across like a vehicle for Diana Ross, Major Entertainer. She can sing! She can act!
And she can, but while Blues succeeds as a showcase for Ross’s talents, it seems less worthwhile as an actual movie. Too long and too insubstantial, the movie fails to explore its subject matter in a satisfying manner.