The very core of George C. Wolfe’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is the film’s music.
Based on the August Wilson play, the film, debuting Dec. 18 on Netflix, follows famed blues singer Ma Rainey as she steps into a recording studio one hot summer day in 1927 Chicago. Levee, an ambitious young trumpet player, is a source of conflict as he dreams of big things for his music future.
Pulsing blues and soulful lyrics are wrapped around Chadwick Boseman’s performance as Levee and Viola Davis’ turn as Ma Rainey. Composer Branford Marsalis’ score expresses the tensions and dynamics of these characters with differing approaches to music. Levee wants to try the new genre of jazz, improvising as he goes. Ma prefers the safe and conservative style of traditional blues.
Marsalis was on tour in Australia when he received a call from director Wolfe about coming on board as the film’s composer. “George wanted the music to be authentic to August’s play,” Marsalis says of those early conversations.
Rather than seek out studio performers, the composer tapped musicians from New Orleans because “they have ‘outside voices.’ They play on the streets. The sound of their instruments would have been the same as in the 1920s when there were a lot of outdoor concerts — they have instruments such as cornets, banjos and tuba, and a lot of indoor studio musicians you’ll find don’t own cornets. These guys did.”
He also recruited a bass player, a trumpeter and a trombone player to join a pianist, the same musical quartet setup Wilson used in his stage play.
Marsalis also listened to Ma Rainey’s work, plunging himself into her moaning style on scratchy old recordings. “George had looked for photos, scouring the internet, but he could only find seven. It’s indicative of the second-class citizenship of most Black Americans at that time,” Marsalis says. He also noticed that Wilson added an acoustic bass to the play — an instrument that wasn’t in use until the ’30s. “But George was determined to stay true to the play’s instrumentation,” the composer notes.
The more Marsalis listened to Rainey’s deep vocals, the more he realized the power of her voice. While Davis sang “Those Dogs of Mine,” for other songs he recruited soul singer Maxayn Lewis, who had been a member of Ike & Tina Turner’s Ikettes.
Before filming started, Marsalis, who had already written much of the film’s music, since the actors would need to perform the songs and learn choreography, was determined to work with the cast members so they looked convincing as musicians. He recalls walking into a ballroom rehearsal, where he saw Boseman. “It was clear he had been studying Miles Davis,” says Marsalis, “because he was arching his back the way Miles did.” Instead, the composer suggested the actor go off and study Louis Armstrong since Davis was the wrong period. (Davis would have been only 2 at the time). “The next day, he came back and he had it,” Marsalis says of Boseman. “His attention to detail was so spectacular.”
In addition to learning Armstrong, Marsalis says Boseman requested a chart for finger positions so he could mimic trumpet playing with authenticity. “I wrote that up for him. He wanted to look convincing, and that included his instrument playing. It’s all in the tiny details,” he says, suggesting audiences watch how Boseman moves his fingers.
As the film seamlessly intertwines the deep soulful music of Ma Rainey with Wilson’s words, Marsalis praises the late playwright’s deep understanding of music. “He knew its purpose, and he understood what a musician goes through. He understands that thought process, and that helped form the basis of this score.”