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Lady Sings the Blues

1972's Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, and in particular Diana Ross' Oscar-nominated performance, exemplifies a pair of Hollywood truisms. First is the maxim that it takes a diva to play a diva. Like Madonna in Evita, Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, and Muhammad Ali (as himself) in The Greatest, Ross brings her considerable celebrity baggage to bear on the role. And that's a good thing. From the opening scene, in which the legendary singer writhes in a rubber room, wracked by morphine withdrawal, it's impossible not to think "Hey, that's erstwhile Supreme and singing superstar Diana Ross with a wild look in her eyes and really bad hair!" Considering some of her legal run-ins over the last few years (including a 2002 jail term for drunken driving), it's also not surprising that she's more convincing when acting nuts or miserable than during the brief spells of happiness in Holiday's life story. This is part and parcel, though, of Hollywood adage number two: Glamorous stars always earn extra points for getting ugly and gritty (just ask Halle Berry or Charlize Theron). That initial scene, set in 1936, provides an entry point for a series of flashbacks which describe the deplorable conditions from which Lady Day emerged. Raped at 15 by a customer at the brothel where she worked as a domestic, Holiday lived the blues as well as sang them. Throughout, Ross tosses her vanity to the wind, but in a self-aware manner that's not entirely humble. Despite the support of friends like Piano Man (Richard Pryor, in a rare — and effective — dramatic performance) and her manager/lover Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams, in the performance that made him known as "the black Clark Gable"), Holiday struggles with addiction and low self-esteem, even as her singing career makes her a star. The musical numbers are captivating, with Ross providing her own versions of Holiday's standards (although the lip-synching is occasionally obvious). The film betrays its 1970s origins with an array of stylish Bob Mackie gowns draped over Ross, and a score by Michel Legrand that's evocative of the Depression-era setting without resorting to mimicry, but which descends into schmaltz on occasion. Paramount's DVD of Lady Sings the Blues offers an anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that's slightly soft but clean throughout. The soundtrack has been remastered in a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, but with admirable subtlety (and a mono soundtrack is available for purists). Supplements include a commentary track featuring producer (and Motown mogul) Berry Gordy, director Sidney J. Furie, and artist manager Shelley Berger. Gordy and Furie have an amiable time remembering the sometimes-turbulent shoot, during which the director quit "two and a half times." A "making-of" documentary, "Behind the Blues," features interviews with Ross and Williams, among others, and includes some priceless on-set home movies (22 min.). Six deleted scenes (18 min. total) are presented in somewhat faded form. Keep-case.
—Marc Mohan

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