Film Review: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, dir. George C. Wolfe

As marlbank is a jazz blog and not a film site let's start with the music to period drama Ma Rainey's Black Bottom a factor often neglected in movie reviews in this latest piece extending on from previous posts around the Branford Marsalis score and …

Published: 19 Dec 2020. Updated: 17 days.

As marlbank is a jazz blog and not a film site let's start with the music to period drama Ma Rainey's Black Bottom a factor often neglected in movie reviews in this latest piece extending on from previous posts around the Branford Marsalis score and more.

The Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey (1886-1939) composed songs credited at the end on the film are 'Deep Moaning Blues' (with Ma Rainey's voice itself on this portion), 'Hear Me Talking To You,' 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' and 'Those Dogs of Mine' all arranged by Marsalis, King Oliver's song 'Doctor Jazz' and the Branford song 'Baby Let Me Have It All' with words by the playwright August Wilson (1945-2005) who authored the play that the film is based on and by bluesman Charley Patton (1891[?]-1934).

On the Milan Records accompanying soundtrack album Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Music from the Netflix Film) there is a lot more collected with additionally 'El Train,' 'Lazy Mama,' 'Chicago Sun,' 'The Story of Memphis Green,' 'Jump Song,' 'Leftovers,' 'Shoe Shopping,' 'Deep Henderson,' 'Reverend Gates,' 'Levee's Song,' 'Sweet Lil' Baby of Mine,' 'In the Shadow of Joe Oliver,' 'Levee and Dussie,' 'Levee Confronts God,' 'Sandman,' 'Toledo's Song,' 'Chicago at Sunset' and 'Skip, Skat, Doodle-do.'

A few things need pointing out overall: the way the music is done is not to make it sound super-1920s in an original instrument or theme park sense that you sometimes get in the movies. Branford's sensibility after playing funk as a teenager is originally out of hard bop playing with Art Blakey and then becoming a star soloist and bandleader traversing with his quartet through hard bop into all directions futurewards. He even ran Columbia/Sony's jazz department for some years signing players to the label's roster. (His later take on Coltrane's A Love Supreme is as good as anyone's and so he isn't necessarily a ''trad jazz'' composer.) However, what the New Orleanian does here is to write for the drama which is set in the 1920s. It is not a cheesy ''Gatsby'' like-film at all. One of the most telling images is ultimately when the tragedy that engulfs pianist Toledo the way the image of some crooner later with a resolutely staid sounding jazz backing moves the music into another space entirely and what is obvious to the viewer a dull sound compared to the fantastic blues of Ma herself and is a watering down. The film has a radical agenda, and does not sidestep the racist America of the day, make no mistake. No gloss paint is applied. Wendell Brunious as the sound of Levee (cornet and trumpet) is outstanding by the way and the ensemble play is loose and very bluesy particularly during the scene when the title track song 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' is nailed but unfortunately not picked up by the recording engineer and the band have to do the song again causing Ma to remonstrate.

The main performances, you'd be a foolish person to bet against, by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman (the knife scenes involving Levee, positively Shakespearean), being up for Oscars. The direction manages to do a lot but the film could easily have run to 20 minutes or more longer without losing anything.

Returning to the starting point, I'll make a comparison with a club. If you go to a club that puts on jazz and food and the music comes first then the food second then that is the right way round otherwise you are sat in a restaurant. If you watch a feature film about a musician and a musician's world and the drama comes first and the music second the same applies otherwise you're there for the story only with the music as scenic soundtrack. Definitely this new film puts the music first and intrinsic and makes it a great addition to the canon of the greatest jazz films up there to sit alongside three of the very best of the last 40 years, Round Midnight (directed by Bertrand Tavernier, 1986), Bird (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1988) and Kansas City (dir. Robert Altman, 1996).

Review, Stephen Graham

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Counting down. 5/ Håkon Kornstad 4/ UK jazz albums of the year 3/ Stanley Cowell has died 2/ The best live gigs of 2020 1/ Van Morrison: live at the PowerHaus Dingwalls brickwork, Camden Lock, London, top. The north London music venue recently …

Published: 19 Dec 2020. Updated: 2 months.

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Counting down.
5/ Håkon Kornstad
4/ UK jazz albums of the year
3/ Stanley Cowell has died
2/ The best live gigs of 2020
1/ Van Morrison: live at the PowerHaus
Dingwalls brickwork, Camden Lock, London, top. The north London music venue recently reopened as the PowerHaus. Photo: marlbank