“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which bows on Netflix on Dec. 18, features Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis as the legendary blues singer and Chadwick Boseman in his final on-screen performance.
“Ma was really successful and super famous, and preceded Bessie Smith,” says composer Branford Marsalis, who delivered the film’s score and music. “Without Ma Rainey, there wouldn’t be a Bessie Smith. Without a Bessie Smith, there wouldn’t be a Billie Holiday.”
Speaking as part of the new Netflix Playlist series, Marsalis explains how Ma Rainey, as a mother of the blues, had an influence on music through the decades. “By the time Prince does [his legendary 1987 album] ‘Sign O’ the Times,’ you don’t know that it’s the blues — and maybe you shouldn’t know, because it’s a sound imprinted onto the culture and the country.”
Set in Chicago on a hot summer day in 1927, the film follows Rainey as she steps into the studio for a recording session. As her bandmembers wait for her to appear, Boseman’s Levee character expresses his dreams and ambitions of making it as a big-time trumpet player.
Marsalis says he believes Levee’s character and performance to be reflective of Black men in society at that time. “I think Levee had some horrific experiences as a child that he had to live with, certain decisions that his father made that most men would, but a lot of men at that time did not act on.”
As we see in the film, Levee takes that energy, trauma and helplessness of society into his music and career. Marsalis praises Boseman’s commanding performance. “Chadwick encapsulated that beautifully: that very quiet, seething rage. Even when he’s laughing, it’s there. All it takes is the right situation, the right event or circumstance to trigger it.”
Watch the video below and a special performance of “Levee’s Song” from “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”