You would think that the eventful and exciting life of Billie Holiday would provide more than enough dramatic material for an engrossing, involving, and emotion-packed motion picture, but apparently the creators of Lady Sings the Blues thought otherwise. Rather than concentrate on the fascinating real life of the woman who was arguably the world's most influential jazz vocalist, the screenwriters and directors have fallen back on the same old rise-and-fall showbiz story that Hollywood has churned out for years. Yes, there are differences, such as the explicit role that drugs and sex play in the story, but these are merely trappings that don't change the essential triteness of the story. As a result, what emerges is an entertaining but fairly routine soap opera, enlivened by the musical interludes and by some strong performances. As the lady herself, Diana Ross is a far cry from Billie Holiday, but since the script as written could be about any tortured singer, this doesn't really matter. She plays the big emotional scenes for all they are worth and creates a compelling character that holds the viewer's attention throughout. Despite some valiant attempts, she can't really capture Holiday's unique vocal presence -- and who could? -- but she does work the songs for all they're worth. Her supporting cast is solid, and there's definite chemistry between Ross and Billy Dee Williams. Sidney J. Furie's direction is pedestrian and Michel Legrand's background score is so over-the-top as to become annoying, but as long as Ross is going through her paces, there's plenty there to keep the viewer entertained.
by Craig Butler review