A musicality ripples through the “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” movie.
Some of that, you would expect. The film (which has just debuted on Netflix) is about a blues recording session in 1920s Chicago; it has snatches of great music throughout.
But that’s just part of it. The dialog itself often has the rhythm and flow of a jazzy riff. It offers a rich sampling of two immensely talented men who died way too soon.
One is Chadwick Boseman (shown here at left, with Viola Davis in the center), who died of colon cancer in August, at 43. The other is playwright August Wilson, who died of liver cancer in 2005, at 60.
Boseman is brilliant here, in a role that could easily earn him an Academy Award. (And I do mean “earn.” No sympathy vote is needed; it’s a stunning performance.)
Davis is also perfect, in the smaller role of Ma Rainey, a real-life blues star. Both benefit from the dialog’s great musicality.
Wilson was an amazing writer. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for drama (“Fences,” “The Piano Lesson”), which tied him for fourth overall, and was nominated six times – No. 1 overall.
His shows often simmer with pain, passion, warmth and rage. And that often peaks when the monologs have that musical flow.
We hear that from Glynn Turman, 73, playing an old pianist, reflecting on the notion of being a fool. And we hear often from Boseman as Levee, the young trumpeter.
Many viewers know Boseman from playing strong-and-silent heroes, both real (Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall) and fictional (Black Panther). But he also surprised them by going the opposite way, playing a high-voltage James Brown; with Ma Rainey, he did it again.
Levee is clearly a great talent, something he’s keenly aware of. He’s a gifted trumpeter and a composer, eager to assemble his own band, with a jazzy, swing feel.
But he has a deep well of personal pain, plus two immediate obstacles: He’s playing with a band that sticks to the standard blues rhythms. And for now, the dictates come from two forces – Ma Rainey and the record-label owner, a White man harvesting Black talent.
George C. Wolfe, a Broadway mainstay (24 Tony nominations, five wins) directed, getting strong work Ruben Santiago-Hudson, better known as an actor, wrote the screenplay, opening this up a tad.
Mostly, though, this remains a play on film, with long stretches of blistering dialog. Some viewers will have trouble keeping up with its whip-like speed. They may also feel battered by the two closing touches: One is fierce and unexpected; the next is quietly and sadly typical or the era.
“Ma Rainey” isn’t always meant to be enjoyed. But it lets us savor two great and departed talents, one bringing the other’s great words to life.