On its sharp, glossy surface, the new Netflix film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a story about Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” spending an afternoon in 1927 Chicago trying to get recordings of her music made the way that she wants them to be made.
Roiling just below the surface, however, are the darkly powerful themes of the 1984 August Wilson play on which the movie is based — love, honor, duty, race, relationships, hopes, fears, and, rolling majestically beneath it all, the music of the blues.
And it’s the blues that provide the inspiration for Wilson, one of America’s great playwrights. “What I do – the wellspring of art, or what I do,” Wilson told interviewer Bill Moyers in 1988, “l get from the blues.”
He puts some of those feelings into the words of Ma Rainey in this film. “White folks don’t understand about the blues,” Rainey says. “They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that that’s life’s way of talking.”
The film takes place during an afternoon recording session in a sweltering Chicago studio. Rainey’s band tries to rehearse, but spends more time talking about their lives. Chadwick Boseman is explosive as the temperamental, ambitious Levee, the young trumpet player in the band who wants to form his own band, write his own music, and break out of this life. This was Boseman’s last performance; he died in August.
Viola Davis is excellent as Ma Rainey, the brooding, complicated and very talented blues singer, who arrives late for the session and then battles her white manager and the white producer over what will be recorded and how. The knowledge that all they want from her is her music, with no respect for her as a person, simmers in her soul.
Rainey, who was born Gertrude Pridgett, was one of the earliest commercial blues singers, performing in the early 1900s. She began a very successful recording career in 1923, but followed Mamie Smith, who made the first blues recordings in 1920, including her giant hit, “Crazy Blues.” Rainey even claimed at one point that she coined the term “blues” for the music she sang.
Rainey’s vividly recreated musical numbers, one of which opens the film, are alive with her music. Jazz great Branford Marsalis wrote the musical score for the film, and if there’s a soundtrack album, it would be worth a listen.
The vocals in front of the Marsalis arrangements are rich and gritty, but the only song actually sung by Davis is when she croons “These Dogs of Mine” gently to her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). The rest of Rainey’s vocals are by Maxayn Lewis, a fine singer on her own, and who, interestingly enough, got her start in the 1960s under her birth name, Paulette Parker, as a member of the Ikettes in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue.
The story of Rainey’s interaction with her manager, and her conflicts with Levee, is tautly drawn, and the resulting tensions keep the film simmering along. The young Levee’s friction with the older band members over his desire to strike out on his own complicates matters even more. Ma’s songs are almost a welcome relief, but these powerful blues only seem accentuate their problems.
Another subplot is Rainey’s relationship with one of the young women dancers in her show, and Levee’s attempt to cut in. Ma’s sexuality was never far from the surface, and although she was married early in her career, hints of her relationships with women, including Bessie Smith, were always present. A song she wrote and performed, “Prove It On Me,” did a lot more than hint.
This is just a great movie, powerful and thoughtful. It was one of a series of Wilson plays that took deep and profound looks at black life and culture. It was the second in a series, and the only one not set in Pittsburgh. This adaptation is sharp and tight — it doesn’t seem like there’s a wasted word anywhere.
This is a great period piece, and even though it’s not based on a real incident, it’s incredibly realistic. The costumes and settings make you feel like you’ve just gotten out of a time machine.
But mainly, it’s an excellent film. Try not to miss it.
Here’s a brief recording of August Wilson talking about the blues and his work:
Here’s a recording of Rainey’s “Prove It On Me”: