Three movies about jazz dropped during the ennui, mayhem, and anticipation of December: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix), Pixar’s Soul (Disney+), and Sylvie’s Love (Amazon). The first and last of these were, respectively, in post-production or had been completed before Covid. Dubbing of the pandemic-proof animated characters in Soul could proceed during the lockdown. Was it the Zeitgeist that decided to offer these affirmations of African-American culture from Hollywood’s Eternal Dream Machine as Black Lives Matter protests continued and even before the Proud Boys stormed the Capitol?
Aside from issues of race, jazz brings into relief fundamental human needs and aspirations. Clubs and concert halls are dark. Gone, too, is the chance to get together and play music with anyone outside the pod. Spontaneous social connections ignite the mutual creation of improvisation. These sparks have been extinguished. 2020 was the year of the solo.
There are foundational jazz tales of musicians withdrawing from the scene and from society—imprisoned, expatriated, drugged, dejected, alone. During a three-year sabbatical from performing on either side of 1960, the great tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins (whose album Way Out West makes a cameo in Sylvie’s Love) self-isolated on the Williamsburg Bridge for practice sessions that sometimes extended to sixteen hours a day. Now no longer able to play his horn, the aged master turned 90 during the pandemic, the occasion marked by radio tributes rather than concerts.
A faithful presentation of August Wilson’s 1984 play, George C. Wolfe’s film of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom evokes a different pandemic—that of racism. It portrays the recording studio as prison and work farm in the swelter of an urban summer. The space is thick with a claustrophobia beyond that of Covid. Bodies and tempers are pent-up with no outlet but violence, sex, and music. (The action remains true to the Aristotelean unities of time and place, except for occasional glimpses of the outside world: fleeting images of the pain and poise of Black folks, and, finally, a glib coda that makes too obvious the white crime of cultural theft.)
The movie begins not in the dungeon basement where it will reach its climax, but under the blue skies and smoking factories of Chicago in the Roaring Twenties. Portrayed with seething, radiant anger by Viola Davis, Ma Rainey arrives for a recording session of her blues number “Black Bottom” to the tune of a minor automotive scrape in the chaotic street in front of the studio. Scratch her car, feel her wrath. The deluxe machine is a symbol of her success and mobility. If Rainey’s white exploiters push her too far, she’ll climb right back in her sedan and head down South where she feels at home and has a tour lined up. The Mother of the Blues is a modern woman.
In the studio, two white overseers—Rainey’s obsequious, yet petulant agent and the imperious, ruthless record company owner—cajole the valuable commodity of song out of the indomitable woman, who knows that she has all the power only until her voice is shackled by recording technology. Rainey therefore holds up the proceedings until she gets the Coca-Cola she demands not really to quench her thirst and lubricate her voice, but as a demonstration of her might.
She waits for the Coke in a wooden chair on a fine Oriental carpet upstairs in the studio, the light from outside streaming in to glisten in the sweat coating her face and chest. “This be an empty world without the blues,” she tells her trust trombone player. Rainey fills that world up with sorrow, defiance, and somehow, joy.
Her band arrives not by car but by foot. The quintet—all men, of course—are hustled down into the building’s windowless basement to rehearse. It’s a warren of cells whose walls are bare brick, the door to the outside and freedom constructed of incarcerating, impenetrable steel. The old-timers who’ve been with Rainey for years know that they are oppressed , but they also know how to get along. They play what they’re told to play, taking the edge off the pain and easing the boredom by nipping at hip flasks and telling stories. It’s Prohibition, but alcohol is as easy to get as Coke.
The newcomer cornet player—Chadwick Boseman in his last film role before succumbing at 43 to cancer—wants to do his version of the blues: fast, flashy, northern. Through his modern arrangements and virtuosic solos he strives for autonomy, yearns for fame. He wants to overthrow the vestiges of minstrelsy, but Ma quashes the insurrection. Fury awaits when the band and its volatile young lion descend once more to the cellar after the session is over. It is difficult but intensely inspiring to watch Chadwick’s performance of a blustering and brilliant young man being torn apart inside while knowing now that what his colleagues on set didn’t—that his body was also being destroyed from within.
It’s just shy of the hour-mark of the film’s 95-minute duration that the recording session begins: the producers close the shutters, draw the thick drapes in order to drown out the sounds of the city and the light of the sun. All seems set to get the job done, but then Rainey insists that her stuttering nephew do a spoken introduction above the band’s accompaniment. One master 78 after the next is thrown away as the kid blows it again and again. At last he gets it right and the blues can roll on, a force of art and nature. We are swept into the moment of creation and capture, even as the music escapes its surroundings. The blues tell not just Rainey’s story. Vistas of Black history open before us in the dim studio.
As she and the band do their thing, we cut inside the control booth and watch their truths being immortalized and monetized by the latest gleaming industrial technology, the studio owner inspecting the ongoing recording process through a magnifying glass pressed to his greedy eye: he’s counting profits, listening to the money not the message.
It is a thrilling stretch of music making and film making, this embrace of the multiple paradoxes of instantaneity and timelessness, joy and pain, submission and defiance.
But word comes down from the booth that there’s been a problem: as always, in the fields or in the studio, there’s more work to be done.
1920s technology only allowed tracks of a two or three minutes per side, but the blues get not just their cinematic due but also respect and veneration at this pivotal point in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. By contrast, the two other films allow only snippets of the music each professes to praise. In Soul we get a few cacophonous fragments of “Take the A Train” done by the band class taught by the middle-aged protagonist, Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx). Soon after that he lucks into a gig at a basement bar (visual reference to the Village Vanguard). The band’s alto saxophone leader is a woman, and the bassist, too: Disney/Pixar world of jazz hits all the required diversity notes. So thrilled with gaining his long-dreamt-of chance, the distracted pianist falls into a manhole and the movie then turns its attention from the alchemy of jazz to the metaphysics of the soul. The soundtrack, too, forsakes jazz for otherworldly synthesizers, as if Vangelis were piped in from his off-world Blade Runner studio to help us find a kinder gentler present and eternity.
Sylvie’s Love is even less in love with jazz. All we get over two-hours of eye candy is a chorus of blues and a ballad that’s wrapped up in a brisk minute or so—a Hardbop Harlequin Romance, but without the hardbop. (The musician we hear is saxophonist Mark Turner.) There are no drugs save alcohol and nicotine, the former poured from cut-glass decanters; no police beatings or cabaret cards revoked; no mental asylums. There’s a bland sorbet of racism served after a suburban dinner of beef bourguignon with the boss of Sylvie’s first-husband (alas, not the love of her life). Set in the New York City (and for a few minutes its suburbs and, finally, Detroit), the movie drops the names of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, and thumbs through some jazz LPs at the Harlem record shop owned by the father of the titular heroine (she’s played by Gabrielle Glore). It’s there that the quiet and handsome tenor man, Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), shows up in search of a day job since his gig as a sideman in quartet isn’t paying the bills. Robert and Sylvie “accidentally” lock themselves in another one of those basements, this one below dad’s shop and a site not of suffering and recrimination but of flirtation.
CORE, the March on Washington, and Motown are inexorably ticked off a longer list of necessary references. The clothes are fine and pressed and never the same; the radios are of Bakelite; the cars are waxed, their chrome shining. Even the soundtrack turns butt to jazz and embraces symphonic shlock: soft-focus strings for the tender kisses; yearning oboes for romantic rifts; a harp—yes a harp!—when the stars at least realign and the lovers (how can you spoil an already rotten and utterly predictable movie?) embrace before the credits try (unsuccessfully it turns out) to drain the suds from this soap opera in which jazz is merely the fabric softener.
Of this trio of “jazz” movies only Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes and makes its music seriously, joyously, beautifully.