- The Washington Times
Saturday, February 13, 2021

Here’s a look at a pair of movies, one classic and one horrifying,  and both new to the Blu-ray format.

Lady Sings the Blues(Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment, Rated: R, 2.39:1 aspect ratio, 144 minutes, $17.99) — The film that turned Supreme Diana Ross into an Academy Award-nominated actress debuts in the Blu-ray format to offer more of a bloated soap opera than biographical account of the troubled life and career of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday

That’s an issue that has been pointed out many times by critics and historians, but it does not detract from Motown producer Berry Gordy and director Sidney J. Furie’s 1972 effort that allowed Miss Ross to deliver an emotionally rich performance while singing some classic songs.

The story starts with Holliday’s arrest in 1936 (complete with Nelson Riddle-inspired cop music) and then follows a loose chronicle of her life from her younger years as a brothel’s cleaning lady to her first audition, bouts with racism, romance and marriage to mob enforcer Louis McKay, decent into heroin addiction and ultimate comeback concert at Carnegie Hall.

Miss Ross’ excelled in her first major acting role, but she also happens to sing, delivering satisfying versions of Holliday’s “Good Morning Heartache,” “Strange Fruit,” “All of Me,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” and “God Bless the Child.”

The supporting cast offered some legendary Black performers including a dapper Billy Dee Williams as McKay, Richard Pryor as wise-cracking Piano Man, Isabel Sanford as Madame Blaine and Harry Caesar and Scatman Crothers as prostitute solicitors.

This high definition version outshines its DVD release from 2005, clean with strong colors (reference the red flower boutonnière on a purple pin-striped suit or a hotel room’s ornate wood veneer) but still clearly not restored and with an acceptable amount of film grain faithfulto the original source material.

Considering Paramount has gone to meticulous extremes in restoring some of its great film catalog under its Paramount Presents Blu-ray label, I am utterly confused why they would not have also given “Lady Sings the Blues” that same dynamic treatment.

However, when one compares this film to the liberties taken in such biopics as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman,” it’s easy to appreciate the intensity and love story in “Lady Sings the Blues.” It delivers a dramatic period piece while showcasing the talents of Miss Ross and the emergence of Black American cinema.

Best extras: Viewers get the same extras from the Special Edition DVD release from 2005.

The best offers an intermittent but informative optional commentary track with the director, Mr. Gordy and artist manager Shelly Berger.

Dominated by Mr. Furie, the trio discuss everything from Miss Ross improvising on the set to how the director quit twice, the casting of Mr. Williams versus Paul Winfield, Mr. Gordy’s financial trouble with Paramount, the chemistry between Miss Ross and Mr. Williams, and the motivations for making the movie.

Next a 23-minute retrospective features interviews from 2005 with mainly Miss Ross. Mr. Williams and co-screenwriter Suzanne de Passe.

Miss Ross explains her motivations in portraying Holiday (not wanting to copy her vocals and owning the character rather than becoming the jazz singer) while Miss de Passe explains the story rationales, and an amusing Mr. Williams touches on working with Miss Ross the director and winning the role.

Also, viewers get 21 minutes of deleted scenes.

Freaky(Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, Rated: R, 2.39:1 aspect ratio, 102 minutes, $34.98) — A high school student literally learns what it’s like to be a serial killer in Blumhouse Productions’ comedic slasher film directed by horror maestro Christopher (“Paranormal Activity” and “Happy Death Day”) Landon.

The mildly clever story finds bullied teenager Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) surviving an encounter with fabled homicidal maniac the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) but magically switching consciousness with her attacker.

With that set-up, and, in the finest traditions of “Freaky Friday,” “Big” and “The Hot Chick” except with more gratuitous gore and blood, let the twisted shenanigans begin.

Life is complicated when the Butcher aka Millie discovers that it was an ancient Aztec dagger used by the killer that stabbed her, and she has one day to find the weapon and reverse the switch or she will be stuck forever as a craggily, unkempt, 6-foot-tall man.

Although “Freaky” suffers from amateurish dialogue while juggling horror genres, Mr. Vaughn shines as he brings a certain finely aged level of humor to the role as he embraces the personality of a 15-year-old girl, especially when he pulls off a Blissfield High cheer.

Pop culture aficionados should also pay close attention to the shop teacher played by actor Alan Ruck, remembered previously as the best friend of Ferris Bueller.

Best extras: An optional commentary track with the director leads the way as he enjoys talking nonstop about his unusual horror masterpiece from his messing with the Universal logo to justifying his tongue-in-cheek story, his aversion to cold weather and exploring production design detail.

It’s a great primer to learn about Mr. Landon’s love of the genre and his thought process when building a horror movie.

Also, four featurettes, under 10 minutes in total, quickly deliver promotional pabulum and are only distinguished when learning about how a shop teacher was split in half with a table saw.

• Joseph Szadkowski can be reached at jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com.

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