Diana Ross plays the magnificent, tragic song stylist Billie Holiday, who while writhing in a strait jacket in a prison cell, awaiting sentencing on drug charges, reflects on her turbulent life.
Raped in her youth by a drunk (Adolph Caesar), then compelled to work as a domestic in a Harlem whorehouse, Holliday is encouraged to try for a singing career by the bordello's pianist (Richard Pryor). She rises as high as it is possible to go in the white-dominated show business world of the 1930s, but can't handle the pressure and turns to narcotics.
The film takes several liberties with the 44-year existence of Lady Day. Among the Billie Holiday standards performed by Ross are My Man, I Cried for You, Lover Man, Them There Eyes, and the title song.