Take legendary Motown diva Diana Ross and let her portray legendary jazz diva Billie Holiday, and well, of course, you’ll get an iconic ‘behind the music’ style biopic that is Lady Sings the Blues (1972). Starting with Holiday thrown in prison on drug charges and flashing back to a childhood filled with rape and prostitution, there’s no sugar-coating Holiday’s life story, even if the events depicted in this movie are only a rough outline of the way it happened. Timelines and places are vague, multiple people are combined into fewer and fictionalized characters, but essence is there, making for a compelling film.
Ross does an admirable job at portraying Holiday’s emotional swings, her heroin addiction, and her affair with Louis McKay (standing in for all three of Holiday’s real husbands, played by Billy Dee Williams). The music is an excellent combination of Diana Ross as herself, not exactly imitating Billie Holiday, but incorporating some of her techniques to make Holiday’s songs recognizable.
The film hints at the racism of the 1930s-1950s when Holiday performed and attempts to link the torment of these experiences to her drug addiction. For example, while touring through the Jim Crow South with an all-white band, Holiday sees a lynched man, and this scene merges into a brief performance of the song “Strange Fruit.” In another scene, the tour bus is actually attacked by a Klu Klux Klan rally. Later, when her band leader tries to line up a radio performance, Holiday is passed over in favor of two white singers, while the radio station pointedly runs a live commercial for a ‘white as snow’ brand of soap. While these are all fictional events, the real Billie Holiday was frequently forced to use service entrances instead of the front door like her white band and was heckled by white audiences, while securing recording contracts was difficult, and the legal troubles that plagued her until days before her death were undoubtedly influenced by racism.
In between the tragedies, Lady Sings the Blues does showcase Billie Holiday’s (and Diana Ross’) amazing talent, and the film adds a melodramatic and touching love story between Holiday and McKay. It’s worth noting that, while Ross was already a star from The Supremes, Billy Dee Williams was still a rising talent, and this film being a box-office hit made him a certified heartthrob.
There’s a story floating around that Miss Ross hated the costumes for this film and had them redesigned after just a few days of shooting. That might explain why three designers get credit, Norma Koch (this is her final screen credit!), and the design team of Bob Mackie and Ray Aghayan. The later two had worked with Ross on her gowns since she left The Supremes, and their style — often just called Bob Mackie’s style — is obvious in the supposedly period looks.
Her stage-show gowns all very much have a contemporary style with the barest hint of 1930s-1940s, usually in the accessories. The daywear more distinctly tries to look of the period, however, Ross’ hairstyle is all over the place in terms of what decade it’s supposed to evoke. In a couple scenes, her hair looks ’30s, and then it goes full ’60s, especially when you compare to photos of Holiday. Considering that her arrest happened in 1947 and Carnegie Hall concert was in ’48, more of the clothing and hair styles should reflect this period than earlier.