Classic TV Review: Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar and Grill (2016)

Posted: March 24, 2016 in Drama, Music, TV

Lady Day

Billie Holiday (Audra McDonald) performs in a bar in Philadelphia in February 1959, four month before her death, she performs with her band featuring piano player Jimmy Powers. (Sheldon Becton)

I don’t know a lot about Billie Holiday’s songs, I know a few, “God Bless The Child, “Summertime.” “Strange Fruit.”  McDonald sings those and lots more.  The singing is amazing, but what is really revelatory is Audra McDonald’s performance.  She is alternatively side-splittingly funny, and heartbreaking in her patter with the audience and her band member, all in the context of a concert.  This is a performance punctuated by colorful language and a boozy melancholy. The viewer actually learns about aspects of Billie Holiday’s life during the patter, and that is both excellent writing and excellent acting.  I expected wonderful singing, but the way Audra McDonald immersed herself in this role was incredible.  In the more poignant moments she would break off in the middle of a song, stirred by some painful memory, and have to be coaxed back into singing by Jimmy Powers.  A one woman show is a very difficult thing to do, all eyes are on the performer, and there is no room for error.  Why isn’t Audra McDonald on some director’s short list for a dramatic role?  I’ll tell you why, because she’s been pigeonholed as a Broadway actress and singer, so she’s offered secondary roles in tv shows and tv musicals.  That’s a shame.  There aren’t enough superlatives to write to adequately praise this performance.

There isn’t a lot of direction in this film, it’s pretty much the audience’s view of Billie Holiday singing in a  dive bar, but at times, the director zooms in on McDonald’s face, and the viewer can see tears falling while she sings “Strange Fruit” that is very emotional indeed.  And so this is the way this film draws the viewer in with tight shots of McDonald’s face or body.  These kinds of shots emphasize the intimacy of the performance.

Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar and Grill:  It made my day.



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