THE STORY OF BILLIE
James Hamilton talks to Diana Ross about ‘Lady Sings The Blues’
DIANA ROSS – Movie Star! As such, and not as a singer, she came to London last week to attend the British premiere of her first film, “Lady Sings The Blues”, in which she plays the role of Billie Holiday, the tragically drug-addicted jazz singer whose autobiography served as inspiration for the film’s plot.
Billie Holiday died in 1959, aged 44, after leading a life to which this filmed version bears little relation. However, the harsh criticism which has been directed at the film’s fictional simplification of the truth is undeserved by Diana, who went to quite amazing lengths to soak up all that she could about the real Billie Holiday and her era.
Surprisingly, other than once remarking “Ah! That’s really something!” about a version of My Man, Diana had been totally disinterested in Billie’s work prior to 1969, when the idea of making the film was first mentioned to her. Disinterest gave way to devotion, and Diana’s research began.
“If I have to play someone I have to know her. I cannot meet her, because she’s dead: the only way I can meet her and know her is through her music and through pictures, through things that were written about her, talking to people that knew her. And that wasn’t enough.
“I had to know the time, and where she travelled, and how she came about. I had to know what was happening then, in the world at that time. And that wasn’t enough.
“Then I had to know about drugs – why this drug, why any drug? Why did she go this direction and not another? Even to the end of my research I began to know her every day I worked on the film, because it wasn’t just acting – I do a lot of reacting to situations that were given to me that were her situations – or supposedly her situations – and I still began to know her more, every day I began to learn something about her. And I don’t know that even at the finish of the film that that was enough.
“I would think that my research took more than a year. Nine months totally I know that I listened to no other music other than music of the ’30s, and jazz, and, er, looking at pictures of what the clubs looked like from the outside and trying to picture what they looked like on the inside, and what the girls wore, and the Jitterbug, dances, all those things that I thought made a difference in how she lived. I’ve been trying to see how different it was from the way things are today.”
In the light of this dedication to authenticity, the film’s inclusion of many seemingly anachronistic slang expressions, the bantering use between blacks of the word “nigger” among them, could be thought of as odd. Diana, who, it must be emphasised, was the driving force behind the period feel of the whole film, thinks not. “Those words were used then, too. I paid quite a bit of attention to that.”
As you probably heard, Diana was nominated for, but failed to win, the Academy Award. Although disappointed, she recognises the importance and glamour of an award such as the “Oscar”, and knows that a beginner’s chances in the ballot are slim indeed, no matter how well that beginner performed. At least she herself was happy with her performance – and she is seldom satisfied.
“I knew that, with whatever learning I had dramatically, I had done my best. That’s all I wanted to do, that’s all I could do. And then, from there, a lot of the beautiful things that I loved, and spent a lot of time on, ended up on the cutting room floor . . . that’s the way it goes, that’s show business!”
Here, Diana is referring to the sections from the beginning of the film depicting Billie’s childhood which were edited out, even for American showing. Since then much more has ended up on the cutting room floor, as the British version of the film (which Diana was to see after our conversation) has been edited from about 160 minutes to 125 minutes . . . that’s 35 minutes of film!
“It’s hurt me a lot. I haven’t seen the cut version but I think I know what it is, and I know I’m going to be saddened by it – but even the first cut, I was saddened by the first cut! They cut all of the childhood, from the time of the brothel in Baltimore, and the rape scene; after that there was an orphanage scene where I went to the Catholic orphanage, all of that was cut out even before the version in the United States.
“And where I run away from school and where I jump out of the building – those were the things that I really loved, because I had to run up the stairs and run down the hallway, and get out of this window.
“It was very much like the book, but there was just too much film and we just could not do a documentary of this lady’s life, just putting facts. I mean, it had to become a story.
“People have to be interested in the person, and the only way they could be interested in Billie Holiday in this film as a person is to watch her grow, and the only way we could do that is by not just throwing in facts, it had to become a story.
“I hope we succeeded, and I can’t wait to see this version, but I heard that by making it this way it’s quite a bit more entertaining . . . I hope so. As far as what I did, acting, I guess we lose that, but the most important thing is the total story.
“You don’t see the childhood: what you do see where it starts in this version, in the New York street, I’m a little bit older there. I played a much younger girl before that. It was really fun because I remembered those things as a kid, and I drew the hopscotch on the ground as I skipped down the street because my director didn’t know about those kind of things – and I said as a kid there was always one on the ground, even if you didn’t do it yourself.”
Well, we don’t see the hopscotch, or the rape scene (even though the latter is shown as one of the stills inside the soundtrack album’s accompanying booklet). We don’t see the bed scene on Billie’s first night out with her lover (played by Billy Dee Williams with suave modernity), nor do we see the arrest scene (reportedly, Diana’s most moving moment, in which she takes off her sunglasses to reveal tear-filled eyes). The arrest scene and its accompanying action is a key pivot of the film, as the flashbacked majority of the story stems from its aftermath, and the voice of the arresting officer even opens Side One of the album!
Judged only on what we do see, “Lady Sings The Blues” still seems too long. By trying to be both an “entertainment” and a “slice of life,” the film falls sharply between two stools. Its glossy production values and misty photography suffuse the period settings with a romance that is in keeping with the early carefree incidents, and at odds with the later sordid dealings – actually, its look is very much that of “The Godfather”.
For the first few episodes, which show the happily coquettish young girl, the film is delightful entertainment – more’s the pity, then, that it is from this end that most has been cut – but, once a fictitious white bandsman has introduced Billie to drugs, the drama becomes as irritating to watch as is the irrational behaviour of its junkie protagonist.
Junkies, whether on drugs or drink, are an exasperating sight: that Diana Ross has portrayed their desperation as convincingly as she has played her lighter moods is of course to her great credit as an actress, but it is not on account of her role that the film becomes irritating.
It is because, the further the story develops from the fairly authentic opening scenes, the more “Hollywood Musical” become the conventions of its telling, so that by the time that the Holiday character is at its most pitiable it is surrounded by compassion-killing stereotypes (with the exception of Richard Pryor, who plays the brutally murdered “Piano-man”).
If viewed through innocent eyes by someone unable to relate the fiction on the screen to the reality in the book (unlike “The Godfather”, this is a case where the book should NOT be read until afterwards), the film is undoubtedly as moving as any within its glamourized bio-pic genre. It differs from other modern drugs-related films ( “Superfly”, etc) in that it has the power to turn you off, and, in truth, ends up by being such a downer that you would be well advised to see it early enough in the evening to leave you time for a comedy too.
Many of the most evocative bits of dialogue have been preserved on the specially designed and lavishly presented soundtrack album (Tamla Motown TMSP 1131), a double album of which two sides are straight music and two are music-plus-chat. Diana’s renderings of Billie Holiday’s music are brave and sometimes successful interpretations, while the songs, dialogue and sound effects sides are an innovation which will be welcomed by all with good imaginations.
Even bearing in mind the cuts and the fact that it is NOT the true Billie Holiday story, there is much to enjoy – so, see the film and hear the records, and then, maybe, you will want to read the book and hear the real records. At the least, you will be able to decide for yourselves if Diana Ross IS Billie Holiday.
Straight from the States
SOUL GENERATION: Million Dollars (Ebony Sounds).
On this current R&B hit Soul Vocal Group dead slowie (soon to be issued in Britain on the new Sticky label), producer Stan Vincent goes a long way towards exonerating himself after his much-criticised work with the Stairsteps. An exquisite lead-swapping gem, this is a bit too Soulful to earn the “Sweet Soul” tag, and is summed up by the title of its more Stairsteps-like throbbing slow flip . . . “Super Fine“.
THE DELFONICS: I Don’t Want To Make You Wait (Philly Groove).
After they started the whole modern “Sweet Soul” Philly Sound with their “La La Means I Love You” in 1968, bringing producer Thom Bell to prominence in the process, it’s a great shame that the ‘Fonics have faded through internal differences just as their style has found international popularity. Their latest meandering slowie still has their trademark (penned by William Hart, arranged by Vincent Montana and Andy Cosmos, produced by Stan Watson, William and Wilbert Hart), but it’s nevertheless a bit TOO languid and limp.
JERRY WASHINGTON: Right Here Is Where You Belong (Excello).
Oooh! Over a gently repetitive basic flute riff, Jerry raps and wails his Soulful way. To begin with, he sets out to find where Kim lives (“She lives next door, on the top floor”, says her gruff-voiced neighbour), only to be greeted with “What you want now?” in a scolding tone. Well, Jerry wants to tell her how his doctor released him from the hospital with an incurable condition that’s worse than cancer . . . a bad case of the Blues. Get the picture? Dig it! Continue reading “April 14, 1973: James Hamilton interviews Diana Ross, Soul Generation, The Delfonics, Jerry Washington, O.V. Wright, Sylvia”