I first saw Lady Sings The Blues many years ago and remembered it as being a really good movie. Re-watching it recently, it seems that the passing of years has changed how I feel about it.
Lady Sings The Blues plays more like a TV movie. There's a presumed rape (by Scatman Crothers), but it takes place off screen. There's drug use, but we don't see actual drug use, it takes place off screen. Even the death of Billie Holiday's mother takes place off screen. It's like the director or more likely Motown, wanted to shield the audience and make a cleaner, neater movie than really could be made out of the real life story of Billie Holiday.
Speaking of drug use, the first couple of times the movie leads us to believe that each time that Billie Holiday experiences racism, she turns to drugs. Only the last bout of drug use in the movie is shown to be recreational. Trying to hit the viewer over the head about how terrible racism is and then having, for the most part, the rest of the movie showing us Whites and Blacks intermingling and treating each other as equals causes a perplexing juxtaposition of ideas.
At no time while watching Lady Sings The Blues did I feel like I was experiencing the real characters, I always felt that I was just watching people playing at their parts. I was really surprised when I realized that Diana Ross was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Billie Holiday. Diana Ross is a great singer, but it's a real stretch to call her more than an adequate actress.
Lady Sings The Blues really had a hard time deciding what it wanted to be about: Billie Holiday's life struggle for success, her love life, or her drug life. It seemed to meander from one thing to the next and back again.
At a running time of 2 hours and 14 minutes, it could have easily been cut to 2 hours; since the very last part of the movie moves Richard Pryor from a background supporting player to a main player in the movie in order to kill him off. This just seemed very odd to me.
I don't really care that most of the facts in the movie are wrong or jumbled out of place in Billie Holiday's life; since the movie is entertaining, just more on the level of a movie of the week or a Lifetime movie. I don't really care that Diana Ross doesn't sound or look anything like Billie Holiday. I don't really care that the movie makes it appear that Billie Holiday wrote "Strange Fruit" after conveniently getting off a bus to use the bathroom in the woods and running straight into a couple of lynch victims hanging from a tree. I mainly don't care about these things, because Lady Sings The Blues never really made me care about any of the characters in the movie.
Couple of videos below, one of Diana Ross and one of Billie Holiday both singing "Good Morning Heartache"