Words: Giulia Lombardo
Set in a music studio between the 1920s and 1930s, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ tells the story of four musicians kept under control by Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), a highly esteemed legend in blues music or else, if you ask me, the queen of blues. In the movie the characters put in the foreground are presented, ready to clash and defend their pride within the studio: they are the trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman), the bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts), the pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) and the trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo). The film, directed by George C. Wolfe and available on Netflix, uses a limited location to exert a considerable pressure on five incandescent protagonists, talents with extraordinary abilities that can easily feed a growing and stifling tension, until they explode in verbal clashes that shake the foundations of the band.
At the heart of the movie we find Chadwick Boseman – in his last, admirable appearance on the screens before his passing – and Viola Davis: two winning cards to play, which carve out a completely intimate dimension, vibrant if necessary, able to upset the balance of a band now established and particularly followed. Rainey, of course, is the star who does not want to show any criticality, but at the same time is a character prone to self-destruction when her demands are not met. It is an element completely detached from the group outlined in the course of work, which seeks to shine with its own light without paying attention to the needs of others. The recording studio turns out to be a place of captivating perdition and from which it is difficult to find a way out. A container of emotions in stark contrast with each other – from frustration you go to furious anger, and then lead to a desperate request for help to remain included in the band – becomes a second home where the recording of songs goes totally in the background.
Such an amazing and powerful story, can’t help but be supported by an equally amazing soundtrack; composed by recreations of music from the 1920’s and music written by Branford Marsalis, who shows a deft touch in his original scoring. His music contains elements of what one might have heard in early jazz, but modernizes it slightly to fit the emotional needs of the action on screen; it supports the action without being intrusive, but it gives it the right springboard to get people. Pulsing blues and soulful lyrics help express the tensions and dynamics of the characters with differing approaches to music, and it underlines the difference between the two main protagonists: Levee wants to try the new genre of jazz, improvising as he goes, whilst Ma prefers to give her all with traditional blues.
The director George C. Wolfe bases the entire movie on an endless exchange of dialogues, regulated by an invisible metronome, that underline – accompanied by amazing blues – small uncomfortable truths and traumas of a remote past that are recorded inside combated souls, which show with extreme difficulty their fragility; every member of Ma Rainey’s band is given a space to express an incommunicability that becomes toxic, a factor that can no longer be considered secondary and of little relevance.
Wolfe manages to reap the heavy legacy of a lost generation of black men and women who have had to face a ruthless path, aware that to create their own destiny they would have to go through the pains of hell. And to tell this historical truth, Wolfe has written a film that tastes like a play, played in a few, claustrophobic spaces in which these wounded souls move, before the eyes of two whites who only apparently are subdued by the whims of a diva like Ma. But in the end, even the lioness of the blues has to bow her head, and in her last glance we find the fatigue of a woman who understands the limits of her supposed strength.
Wolfe’s eye is careful in building this incredible emotional fabric, that is strong thanks to the magnificent interpretations of Davis and Boseman, around which revolve the other characters, perfect in conveying the bitter essence of this story; because ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is a blues, it dresses of seductive music, sinuous in its being promising but just as acidic in breaking hopes. Just as Jimmy Hendrix once said “blues might be easy to play, but hard to feel”: blues must be heard, to be played, it must be suffered, and Netflix offered us a wonderful, poignant blues melody.
You can listen to ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ soundtrack here here: