Rollicking and heartbreaking in equal measure, the period musical drama “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” plays all the right notes, from Viola Davis mightily singing the blues to a brilliant, shattering final performance from the late Chadwick Boseman.
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Davis might have the title role – and she’s undoubtedly magnetic as a gold-toothed, cola-chugging force of nature – but Boseman makes “Ma Rainey” (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in select theaters Nov. 25, streaming Dec. 18 on Netflix) his own as a self-centered cornet player with huge ambitions. Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe’s cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play explores racial and sexual dynamics, though at its core it’s a struggle between a couple of very hard-nosed, stubborn and talented musicians.
“Black Bottom” features these two strong personalities, and others who get caught in their orbit, on a hot Chicago day in 1927 for an afternoon recording session that’s an emotional powder keg ready to explode.
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Everybody’s waiting for Ma Rainey (Davis), from her increasingly exasperated manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) to her band. Levee (Boseman) is the young and hungry brass player who’s rearranged Ma’s signature tune, without her approval, and is writing his own songs to record. His older compatriots – thoughtful pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), steady trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo) and quiet bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts) – are trying to keep his ego in check.
“If my daddy knew I’d have a note like this, he would have named me Gabriel,” the charismatic Levee tells Cutler, complaining about the “jug band music” they’re supposed to be recording. The fireworks really start, however, when Ma finally shows up: She not only bristles at Levee messing with her song but also demands that her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) do a voiceover intro, causing even more chaos. Tempers flare, Levee eyes Ma’s new girlfriend (Taylour Paige) – which doesn’t go unnoticed – and Ma engages in a creative tug of war with the white guys running the session.
“They gonna treat me the way I want to be treated, no matter how much it hurt them,” she says.
Everything Ma does is a show, from walking down the stairs in a fur stole to downing a bottle of soda, and Davis imbues her persona, based on the real-life “Mother of the Blues,” with an infectious, no-nonsense energy. (Davis lends roaring vocals to a tune called “Those Dogs of Mine,” while Ma’s other tracks are handled by R&B singer Maxayn Lewis.) You feel for every poor dude who dares confront her because he’s probably going to get run over. And yet even though Ma is the epitome of high maintenance, there’s also an unbreakable (and understandable) need to not let any of her power slip away.
A similar dichotomy exists within Levee. Armed with an inviting smile and an edgy playfulness, Levee has an abundance of bluster, but it’s born from a trauma he reveals in a searing speech that’s biblical in its level of absolute fire.
It’s made all the more impressive and moving when you see Boseman’s thin body and realize this final role was filmed as he battled the colon cancer that would take his life at a painfully young 43. As good as Boseman was playing Black icons and Black Panther, “Black Bottom” is a stellar showcase for everything he did so well – and the kind of knockout performance that garners, if there’s any justice, a bevy of posthumous awards.