Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Real Lady Day in BILLIE

This documentary has punch and power as it focuses on one of the premiere jazz artists in American history -- singer Billie Holiday.
The documentary is entitled BILLIE. In 1972, singer Diana Ross made her acting debut as Billie Holiday in LADY SINGS THE BLUES. The former Motown girl group star wowed the critics with her dramatic work and got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Also in the 1970s, a Jewish female journalist from the Bronx in New York was working passionately on gathering interviews and information on Billie Holiday. Linda Kuehl became obsessed with the jazz singer when, at age 14, she heard one of her albums. In Kuehl's adult years, she was determined to write a biography of Billie Holiday that would not present the late artist as a victim.
I easily understand how the 14 year old future journalist felt. During my Catholic high school years back in South Central Los Angeles, I had an algebra teacher named Mr. Pizzorno. He was a slim, serious yet approachable young man with red hair and an untrimmed beard. He looked like a 60s hippie who had donned a suit for his parochial school day job. He respected the students and we respected him. He took a sincere interest in us. I was stunned at how he through my thick head. My head was very thick when it came to math but Mr. Pizzorno made me get it. He was a successful teacher. I finished his course with a good grade. One afternoon after class, he called me over to his desk and gave me a piece of paper. On it was written a local FM radio station's call letters and a name. Mr. Pizzorno said, "I have a nighttime job on radio. That's the station and that's the name I use on radio. If you can, listen to me Thursday nights at 10. I think you'll like it."
Mr. Pizzorno hosted a jazz show. On Thursday nights, he devoted the full 10:00 hour to Billie Holiday cuts. I had never really heard her until I tuned in to Mr. Pizzorno's show. When I heard her sing "Trav'lin Light," "Don't Explain" and "Autumn in New York," my soul was illuminated. Her voice took my teen emotions somewhere they'd never been. Just like Linda Kuehl in the Bronx, I was hooked. And this was before I saw Diana Ross in LADY SINGS THE BLUES.
The BILLIE documentary has recorded interviews with musicians, friends and some folks who remembered Holiday from her teen years growing up in Baltimore. We hear from known artists such as Tony Bennett and the late Carmen McRae. We hear from Billie Holiday herself in radio interviews and we see her in performance. We see her artistry in action. Seeing her sing the stinging anti-lynching social statement, "Strange Fruit," is unforgettable. What we learn about the singer, nicknamed "Lady Day" when she sang with Count Basie's band, is strong stuff. It should probably come as no surprise that it's stronger than the material in 1972's LADY SINGS THE BLUES. Holiday was serious her craft. She also lived her life on her own terms. She liked to get high. She was sexually fluid. Holiday had male and female lovers. With a talent that took her from singing with bands during the Swing Era to a concert performance at Carnegie Hall and then a European tour, she surely made some White male Americans jealous with her income, fame and the fact that she slapped American across the face for its racism with "Strange Fruit." She'd experienced racism herself on the road with the bands. She did jail time for drugs -- and the government seemed determined to make her do jail time. If you saw LADY SING THE BLUES. the real life Louis McKay was nowhere near as likeable as Billy Dee Williams in the movie. He was a weasel who married and abused Billie, physically and financially, in her final years.
You get two fascinating stories in this one documentary. There's the story of Billie Holiday and there's the story of the young female journalist who got some pretty incendiary material in her recorded interviews of those who knew Lady Day. Both the singer and the journalist came to sad, untimely ends. BILLIE is worth seeing and very well done. It opens on December 4th. Here's a trailer.

Sunday, November 22, 2020


 Change. Faith. Forgiveness. That's what at the heart of DOLLY PARTON'S CHRISTMAS ON THE SQUARE, an original holiday musical currently airing on Netflix. I expected this production, which runs 1 hour and 38 minutes, to have more corn than a Kansas City picnic on the 4th of July. Well, it is sentimental without being schmaltzy. To be honest, I had a couple of tears in my eyes come the end of it. If this feature aired on ABC or CBS after a network presentation of the beloved Charlie Brown Christmas special, I'd leave the channel right where it was and enjoy it. DOLLY PARTON'S CHRISTMAS ON THE SQUARE is exactly the holiday tonic we needed, especially in an emotionally, physically and financially brutal year such as 2020 has been. It's something comfortable and warm you can slip into, like a favorite pair of slippers. This mirthful and poignant feature reminds us that Christine Baranski, Treat Williams and Jenifer Lewis, stars of the production, are veteran musical talents Baranski and Williams have Broadway credits. He was in the movie version of HAIR. She was in the movie version of MAMMA MIA! Jenifer Lewis, now a regular on the hit BLACK-ISH sitcom, was one of Bette Midler's Harlettes, her fabulous back-up singers, in her 1970s concerts. You can see Lewis as a Harlette in one of Bette's numbers in BEACHES. Each actor has a number in DOLLY PARTON'S CHRISTMAS ON THE SQUARE.

The show also reminds us that Dolly Parton is one of our premier songwriters, a most prolific composer who has written for her country albums, for movies, Broadway and TV. Parton wrote all the songs we hear in the original production, directed and choreographed by Debbie Allen.

Baranski plays the woman who pretty much owns a small town. She's a cold, corporate character who plans to sell the town to make her corporate dreams come true. She plans to sell the town to a mall developer. She's handing out eviction notices at Christmastime along with her version of stimulus checks so that the residents can move on with their lives. Somewhere else. She's a bit like Mr. Potter in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE with a dose of Senator Mitch McConnell. Some townspeople have known Regina Fuller for years but they do not know what covered her heart with a hard frost in Fullerville over the years. What changed her?

Christine Baranski is wonderful in the role. She never gets overboard into caricature and me Regina Fuller just a female Scrooge. You see her corporate exterior. You also see a heartbreak behind the eyes. In this fantasy, Baranski makes Regina Fuller a believable character. The story takes place in a small town and director Debbie Allen keeps a cozy small town intimacy and feeling throughout it. Being a Dolly Parton production, there is diversity and inclusion in the town church. The congregation is black, white, brown, young, old, straight and openly. As for Dolly, she appears as a homeless person who's really a Christmas angel. 

I absolutely loved the duet Christine Baranski's character has with the little girl, Violet, who helps her bartender dad. Violet calls herself "an old soul." Jenifer Lewis gets a rousing church number that would fit perfectly in real-life church services for moments of praise. Another church number, with the entire congregation singing that Regina Fuller is "The Wicked Witch of the Middle" is a hoot. I repeat -- Dolly Parton wrote all the songs. Here's a trailer.

This year, singer/songwriter/actress/producer donated $1 million to help find a vaccine for COVID-19. To me, she really is a Christmas angel. Next year, President Biden should bestow upon her a National Medal of Freedom.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Viola Davis and Black Hollywood History

 This season for Oscar buzz has begun. The Oscar nominations will be announced on March 15th of next year and critics such as Anne Thompson of INDIEWIRE and Clayton Davis of VARIETY have mentioned Viola Davis as ripe for another Best Actress Oscar nomination thanks to her performance in MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM coming to Netflix.

   Just like FENCES, it's a film based on a play by the late Pulitzer Prize winner, August Wilson. The film version of FENCES, directed by and co-starring Denzel Washington, brought Davis the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. If Viola Davis gets an Oscar nomination for MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM, she will become the most Oscar-nominated Black actress in all Hollywood history. It will be her 4th nomination -- following nods for DOUBT, THE HELP and FENCES. That's significant history as it highlights and underscores the lack of film opportunities for Black actresses after they received an Oscar nomination. Look at the majority of Black women nominated for the Academy Award from the 1970s to this 21st Century. They got an Oscar nomination, then had to turn to TV for steady employment. In the 1970s, Cicely Tyson (SOUNDER) and Diahann Carroll (CLAUDINE) were nominees for Best Actress and then TV had work for them. Not Hollywood. The same goes for future one-time Oscar nominees Margaret Avery (THE COLOR PURPLE), Alfre Woodard, Angela Bassett, Marianne Jean-Baptiste (1996's SECRETS & LIES), Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe and DREAMGIRLS Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson. They received rave reviews and an Oscar nomination but their achievement was not met with several good script opportunities afterwards. The same cannot be said of Caucasian actress such as Julia Roberts, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence after receiving their first Oscar nominations. This is a racial inequality in Hollywood story that is never delved into, questioned, investigated and written about by noted film critics and journalists -- male and female -- who are, themselves, in a field that's been predominantly White. However, those same critics are the ones who've been quoted in print ads telling us to see THE COLOR PURPLE, DO THE RIGHT THING, MISSISSIPPI BURNING, BOYZ N THE HOOD, HUSTLE & FLOW, THE HELP, 12 YEARS A SLAVE and GREEN BOOK.

Whoopi Goldbert was a Best Actress Oscar nominee for 1985's THE COLOR PURPLE. She won the Best Supporting Actress for 1990's GHOST. She then reigned for nearly 20 years as the most Oscar-nominated Black actress in Hollywood history. Eventually, the extremely talented Whoopi Goldberg had very few good Hollywood film offers and she also turned to TV, becoming a regular on the hit ABC daytime talk show, THE VIEW. Viola Davis tied Whoopi's record when her performance in 2011's THE HELP brought her a 2nd Oscar nomination. However, after that Best Actress Oscar nomination, she was miffed to find that Hollywood had no other good script offers for her. She, too, turned to TV and starred on the hit ABC prime time series, HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER, for steady employment and exposure. Then came FENCES in which she and Denzel Washington recreated performances that earned them Tony Awards for the Broadway revival.

Also getting Oscar buzz for the Best Actress category next year are Sophia Loren for her return to film as a Holocaust survivor who befriends an angry Black street kid in the drama, THE LIFE AHEAD, currently on Netflix and Meryl Streep. Streep who stars in the upcoming upcoming musical comedy, THE PROM, based on a Broadway show. Clayton Davis of VARIETY wrote "...Meryl Streep is irresistible...her chances for securing her 22nd Oscar nomination are looking good." Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are tied at 3 nominations. I'm hoping Viola Davis makes Hollywood history and secures her 4th Oscar nomination.

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM stars Viola Davis, the late Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman and Colman Domingo. It hits Netflix on December 18th.

Click onto this link to see a trailer:


Oscar Buzz for TILL

 I'm on Twitter and, in the last three weeks, there's been Oscar buzz from a few established movie critics. The buzz was that Cate B...