Lady Sings the Blues (film)

Lady Sings the Blues is a 1972 American biographical drama film directed by Sidney J. Furie about jazz singer Billie Holiday, loosely based on her 1956 autobiography which, in turn, took its title from one of Holiday's most popular songs. It was produced by Motown Productions for Paramount Pictures. Diana Ross portrayed Holiday, alongside a cast including Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, James T. Callahan, and Scatman Crothers.[3]

Lady Sings the Blues
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySidney J. Furie
Produced byBrad Dexter
Berry Gordy
Jay Weston
James S. White
Screenplay bySuzanne de Passe
Chris Clark
Terence McCloy
Based onLady Sings the Blues
by Billie Holiday
William Dufty
StarringDiana Ross
Billy Dee Williams
Richard Pryor
Music byGil Askey
Michel Legrand
CinematographyJohn A. Alonzo
Edited byArgyle Nelson
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • October 12, 1972 (1972-10-12)
Running time
144 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$14 million
Box office$19,726,490[2]


In 1945 New York City, Billie Holiday is arrested on a drugs charge.

In a flashback to 1928, Billie is working as a housekeeper in a brothel in Baltimore. When she returns to her aunt's house, she is home alone and is raped by a man that followed her home from the brothel. She runs away to her mother, who sets up a job cleaning for another brothel in the Harlem section of New York. The brothel is run by an arrogant, selfish owner who pays Billie very little money.

Eventually, Billie tires of scrubbing floors and becomes a prostitute, but later quits and returns to a nightclub to unsuccessfully audition to become a showgirl. After "Piano Man" accompanies Billie when she sings "All of Me", club owner Jerry books her as a singer in the show.

Billie's debut begins unsuccessfully until Louis McKay arrives and gives her a fifty dollar tip. Billie takes the money and sings "Them There Eyes". Billie takes a liking to Louis and begins a relationship with him. Eventually she is discovered by Harry and Reg Hanley, who sign her as a soloist for their southern tour in hopes of landing a radio network gig. During the tour, Billie witnesses the aftermath of the lynching of an African-American man, which presses her to record the controversial song "Strange Fruit". The harsh experiences on the tour result in Billie taking drugs which Harry supplies. One night when Billie is performing, Louis comes to see Billie. She collapses on stage. In her dressing room, Louis notices her needle marks, knows that she is doing drugs, and tells her she is going home with him. Billie promises to stay off the drugs if Louis stays with her.

In New York, Reg and Louis arrange Billie's radio debut, but the station does not call her to sing; the radio sponsors, a soap company, object to her race. The group heads to Cafe Manhattan to drown their sorrows. Billie has too much to drink and asks Harry for drugs, saying that she does not want her family to know that the radio show upset her. He refuses and she throws her drink in his face. She is ready to leave, but Louis has arranged for her to sing at the Cafe, a club where she once aspired to sing. She obliges with one song but refuses an encore, leaving the club in urgent need of a fix. Louis, suspicious that Billie has broken her promise, takes her back to his home but refuses to allow her access to the bathroom or her kit. She fights Louis for it, pulling a razor on him. Louis leaves her to shoot up, telling her he does not want her there when he returns.

Billie returns to the Harlem nightclub, where her drug use intensifies until she hears of the death of her mother. Billie checks herself into a drug clinic, but because she cannot afford her treatment the hospital secretly calls Louis, who comes to see her and agrees to pay her bills without her knowledge. Impressed with the initiative she has taken to straighten herself out, Louis proposes to her at the hospital. Just as things are looking up, Billie is arrested for possession of narcotics and removed from the clinic.

In prison, Billie goes through crippling withdrawal. Louis brings the doctor from the hospital to treat her, but she is incoherent. He puts a ring on her finger to remind her of his promise to marry her. When she finishes her prison sentence, Billie returns home and tells her friends that she does not want to sing anymore. Billie marries Louis and pledges not to continue her career, but the lure of performing is too strong and she returns to singing with Louis as her manager. Unfortunately, her felony conviction has stripped her of her Cabaret Card, which would allow her to sing in NYC nightclubs. To restore public confidence and regain her license, Billie agrees to a cross-country tour. Billie's career takes off on the nightclub circuit.

Louis leaves for New York to arrange a comeback performance for Billie at Carnegie Hall. Despondent at Louis' absence and the never-ending stream of venues, Billie asks Piano Man to pawn the ring Louis gave her in exchange for drugs. While they are high that evening, Piano Man's drug connections arrive; he neither pawned the ring nor paid for the drugs. Piano Man is killed by the dealers. Within the hour, Louis and her promoter call Billie with news that they got Carnegie Hall. Louis returns to find a very fragile Billie who is traumatized and has fallen back into drugs. Louis takes her back to New York.

Billie plays to a packed house at Carnegie Hall. Her encore, "God Bless the Child", is overlaid with newspaper clippings highlighting subsequent events: the concert fails to sway the Commission to restore her license; subsequent appeals are denied; she is later re-arrested on drug charges and finally dies when she is 44. Nevertheless, the Carnegie triumph is frozen in time.


Box office

The film earned an estimated $9,050,000 in North American rentals in 1973.[4]

Critical reception

Vincent Canby of The New York Times described Ross as "an actress of exceptional beauty and wit, who is very much involved in trying to make a bad movie work ... her only apparent limitations are those imposed on her by a screenplay and direction seemingly designed to turn a legitimate legend into a whopper of a cliché."[5] Variety wrote that "for the bulk of general audiences, the film serves as a very good screen debut vehicle for Diana Ross, supported strongly by excellent casting, handsome '30s physical values, and a script which is far better in dialog than structure."[6] Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, writing that Ross had given "one of the great performances of 1972" and observing that the film "has most of the clichés we expect—but do we really mind clichés in a movie like this? I don't think so."[7] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune also awarded three out of four stars, writing, "The fact that 'Lady Sings the Blues' is a failure as a biography of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday doesn't mean it can't be an entertaining movie. And it is just that—entertaining — because of an old fashioned grand dame performance by Diana Ross, late of the pop-rock scene, in the title role."[8] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Ross gave "one of the truly fine screen performances, full of power and pathos and enormously engaging and sympathetic."[9] Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote that "when the movie was over I wrote 'I love it' on my pad of paper ... Factually it's a fraud, but emotionally it delivers. It has what makes movies work for a mass audience: easy pleasure, tawdry electricity, personality—great quantities of personality."[10] Tom Milne of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that Ross did "a remarkable pastiche job on the tone and timbre of Billie Holiday's voice, [but] misses the elegant, almost literary wit of her phrasing," and found the presentation of Holiday's life story "offensively simplistic."[11]

The film currently holds a 69% "Fresh" score on Rotten Tomatoes based on 13 reviews.[12]

Awards and honors

It was nominated for five Academy Awards.[13] The nominations were for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Diana Ross), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Carl Anderson and Reg Allen), Best Costume Design (Norma Koch), Best Music, Original Song Score and Adaptation (Gil Askey & Michel Legrand) and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced.[14] The film was also screened at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, but was not entered into the main competition.[15]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


Motown released a hugely successful soundtrack double-album of Ross' recordings of Billie Holiday songs from the film, also titled Lady Sings the Blues. The album went to number one on the Billboard Hot 200 Album Charts,[17] for the week-ending dates of April 7 and 14, 1973.


Cafe Manhattan in the film may refer to Café Society, where Holiday first sang "Strange Fruit."

See also


  1. "LADY SINGS THE BLUES (X)". British Board of Film Classification. December 22, 1972. Retrieved July 21, 2013.
  2. "Lady Sings the Blues, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved January 21, 2012.
  3. The AFI Catalog of Feature Films:Lady Sings the Blues
  4. "Big Rental Films of 1973", Variety, 9 January 1974 p 19
  5. Canby, Vincent (October 19, 1972). "Screen: Billie Holiday". The New York Times: 56.
  6. "Lady Sings The Blues". Variety: 18. October 18, 1972.
  7. Ebert, Roger. "Lady Sings The Blues". Retrieved November 22, 2018.
  8. Siskel, Gene (October 27, 1972). "A nice 'Lady,' but she's no Billie". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 1.
  9. Champlin, Charles (October 25, 1972). "Two Ladies Who Sing the Blues". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 1.
  10. Kael, Pauline (November 4, 1972). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker: 152.
  11. Milne, Tom (May 1973). "Lady Sings the Blues". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 40 (472): 99.
  12. "Lady Sings the Blues". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 22, 2018.
  13. "NY Times: Lady Sings the Blues". NY Times. Retrieved December 28, 2008.
  14. "Academy Award Official Database for 1972".
  15. "Festival de Cannes: Lady Sings the Blues". Retrieved April 20, 2009.
  16. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved July 30, 2016.
  17. "Article at". Archived from the original on June 9, 2008.
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