This is an interesting and somewhat edgy performance. But to get anyone to watch it relies on two facts. One you got to enjoy theatrical performance because LADY DAY AT THE EMERSON BAR & GRILL is a film adaptation of an actual play. It so happens that Broadway stunner Audra McDonald happened to have already starred in the stage work to acclaim so it only made sense to capture it on film. If you are already familiar with the staged version then you’d be eager for this cinematic adaptation. The other fact is a big one: you got to know or want to know about the title subject which is Billie “Lady Day” Holliday.
Some of you just might be asking the big question. “Who?” Billie Holliday was a big-time jazz artist. Think of her as a mix of Beyonce (a big time musical celebrity that had the audience’s attention) and Amy Winehouse (she ended her life & her music short due to addictions). Though her musical range and abilities were not spectacular she could put on a show. Her drug and alcohol habits ended all that and this recreation of the performer illustrates all that. Filmed before a live audience at Cafe Brasil in New Orleans, this work features six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald in her history-making, tour de force performance as the jazz icon. Originally written for off-Broadway by Lanie Roberston in 1987, the piece tells Holiday’s life story through the songs that made her famous, including “God Bless the Child,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Strange Fruit” and “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness.”
The original playwright behind the work, Lainie Robertson, had this to say about it all:
My first lover described seeing Billie Holiday at a club about four months before her death. There were seven people in the audience. She came in, high as a kite, carrying her little dog, tripped on the microphone wire, sang about 12 songs and stumbled out. I thought, “This is such a potent story.” That an artist of that magnitude whose talent was so evident and is still so recognized, was as an individual so dismissed, was so upsetting; it stayed with me. I kept looking for how to articulate it into a play…I thought, “If I can find a way for the audience to know what’s in Billie’s mind when she sings a song, then it will be a monologue; a continuation of her thought process.”
That is indeed what happens in this two-hour performance. It takes place in a typical club, this one happens to be in Philadelphia PA, four months prior to her death from cirrhosis of the liver. She stumbles on stage as high as can be and helps herself to ample splashes of alcohol along the way. She rambles on about her life slipping in and out of songs from her set and also slipping in and out of concentration when she stares into space leaving the room in hushed silence. The audience, both us and the one depicted, watch as this sad, pathetic drama plays out.
Along the way you hear the unmistakable Lady Day style which is a growly improvised jazz voice bringing up emotion and sound from the depths of her soul. You also get a sense of history about the hardships of her life and of her color. She gets to rumbling in her own way so fast and rough that it is almost a strain on your ears to keep up with her addled speech. But the way she tells it all is fascinating. One story tells of how she let her bladder burst forth when she was denied entrance to a White bathroom at a big party. Then off she’d go rambling onto the next thing or glaring at her pianist for interrupting her to sing another song.
One amazing aspect of this work is the performance of Audra McDonald. She truly as the acting chops to personify a person so unlike her. I know that is what is supposed to happen when an actor takes on a role, but Auda not only created a character by altering her speech but also changed her posture and took on a vocal imprint that was totally opposite her own. McDonald’s singing style is drastically different from Holliday’s. Audra is a trained operatic singer capable of all the high notes and Billie was an untrained low register voice with a short range in complete contrast. That means McDonald learned how to sing the opposite of how she performs which must surely been exhausting and demanding to accomplish. Here is what Audra McDonald has to say:
Even if you are not into jazz I think you’d get into this tour-de-force filmed stage performance. It is quite exciting to see McDonald work this character and set before us a sampling of, not just the music, but the life of Billie Holliday. Lady Day is to this day an icon that many a performer looks up to for her depth of soul and expression, but she is also a tragic soul who found solace and comfort by letting her emotions be released in song. You can experience all that in the HBO Special: LADY DAY AT THE EMERSON BAR AND GRILL.