While we’ve got Jazz conquering the heart and soul of many through Pixar’s new film Soul, we followed the path showed by Blues with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This is our musical and cinematographic review for this month. This is our Minema.
Spoiler Alert: 7/10
Do you remember these big rooms with big screens? The… cinemas? It’s been a while, right? Thankfully, their temporary closure doesn’t mean we can’t get new creations up and running, especially online. And some are music-related. Produced by Denzel Washington, this biopic isn’t one.
BIOPIC? FROM THE STAGE TO THE SCREEN
In this glimpse of life, we’re meeting Ma Rainey, also known as The Mother of the Blues. This immense singer with a golden voice seems rather behind, discreet, and almost forgotten by American music history. Rather the white part of it.
Thankfully for us, in 1984, the playwright August Wilson proposed to rediscover this great woman’s sulphurous character through his play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a fiction around the legend. And in December 2020, it’s George C. Wolfe who’s paid tribute to them both with an adaptation, worked for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and available on Netflix. And the fiction is important here, although the singer’s character seems to really match her real-life persona.
A TRIBUTE TO BLUES
The film opens on silence, in a night-blue forest. We’re following two young men running to get in the line for a gig, under a tent, bright and loud, which brings a beautiful and gripping contrast with the outside. Clear, warm and lively. Ma Rainey is owning her territory: the stage. Viola Davis interprets the artist brilliantly. The story unravels and the music takes more space.
During the recording session, the heated summer knocking out Chicago seems to fade. If tension is in the air, though, and doesn’t seem to ease, the music being recorded brings high spirits and some welcomed fresh breeze. The sound is, obviously, incredibly well mastered and harmonises perfectly with the images, sometimes close to paintings and photographs capturing the era.
AN ARTISTIC AND SOCIAL FIGHT
Trompetist Levee steps forward and Chadwick Boseman introduced him to us with all his layers: ambitious, driven, talented but also stubborn, impatient, broken and violent. A sublime performance that should stay in everyone’s mind. Across the story, his blues and Ma’s are opposing one another, in rhythm and form, in style and protocol, threading the tension between the two characters on all levels, as, on top of the Blues’ favours, both are seeking Ma’s girlfriend, Dussie Mae’s.
Around them, there’s the band, touching, talented and sweet, of which three members are supporting Ma, understanding why she appears so rough, despite it all, and with the same love for their music. Quickly, this difficult character, violent, imposing, seems very logical and understandable. She is a Black woman in an industry dominated by White men. And this still has a lot of relevance today.
Levee, on his side, affirms that the White man doesn’t scare him, to a point he seems confident he can master them, in a way. To a point that, at the end of the film, the one we thought was a talent-although-arrogant man has become just the shadow of himself, desperate after he lost everything. And we understand Ma even more, as she fights for her art as much as for her status as a woman, a Black person and an outsider. The band suffers. The music suffers. And the Blues makes sense. The film is a must-watch.
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