Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
My first reaction when I learned that Diana Ross had been cast to play Billie Holiday was a quick and simple one: I didn't think she could do it. I knew she could sing, although not as well as Billie Holiday and certainly not in the same way, but I couldn't imagine Diana Ross reaching the emotional highs and lows of one of the more extreme public lives of our time. But the movie was financed by Motown, and Diana Ross was Motown's most cherished property, so maybe the casting made some kind of commercial sense. After all, Sal Mineo played Gene Krupa.
All of those thoughts were wiped out of my mind within the first three or four minutes of "Lady Sings the Blues", and I was left with a feeling of complete confidence in a dramatic performance. This was one of the great performances of 1972.
And there is no building up to it. The opening scene is one of total and unrelieved anguish; Billie Holiday is locked into prison, destitute and nearly friendless, and desperately needing a fix of heroin. The high, lonely shriek which escapes from Ross in this scene is a call from the soul, and we know this isn't any "screen debut" by a Top 40 star; this is acting.
It was probably inevitable that the movie itself would follow the tried-and-true formula of most of the musical biographies of the last twenty years. The genre is well-established, and since most of the musicians they've made movies about have had unhappy private lives, there's the problem of making downhill look like uphill, at least sometimes. This is often handled (and it is again this time) by showing the performer hitting bottom, rebounding into the arms of friends, being nursed back to health, and making a spectacular comeback performance at Carnegie Hall, or at least the Palace.