In the middle of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the new Netflix drama based on August Wilson’s acclaimed play, the title character drifts into a monologue. “White people don’t understand the blues,” muses Rainey (Viola Davis), an innovator at the intersection of blues and jazz with an indomitable trust in her own expressive machine.
“They hear it coming out, but they don’t know how it got there,” she says as she prepares to record in a 1927 Chicago studio. “They don’t understand that’s the way of life to talk.” You don’t sing to feel better, you sing because that is your way of understanding life. “
Time seems to stand still when Rainey speaks. The gap between their words and what white society is ready to hear shows well before us. They realize that this is the fertile space in which their music exists – an ungoverned area too full of spirit, expression and abstention for politics and law to interfere.
But maybe this scene is only so amazing because it was so rare in all of film history. With a few exceptions, the films have hardly ever told the story of jazz through the lens of black life.
Now, inexcusably late, that is beginning to change.
Piloted by veteran theater director George C. Wolfe, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is one of three feature films released this holiday season that focus on jazz and blues. All of them were made by black directors or co-directors. The other two are New York stories: “Sylvie’s Love” by Eugene Ashe, a mid-century romance between a young jazz saxophonist and an aspiring TV producer, and “Soul”, a Pixar feature film by Pete Docter and Co – Director: Kemp Powers, who uses a pianist’s near-death experience to raise open questions about inspiration, compassion and how we all manage life’s endless counterpoint between frustration and resilience.
The films present black protagonists in full bloom – musically, visually, thematically – and give these characters a dimensionality and depth that the music itself reflects. It is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s explanation of why she wrote Jazz, her novel in 1992: she wanted to examine the changes in African American life brought about by the great migration – changes she later wrote “were abundantly evident in music. ”
The new films surpass many, if not all, of the problems of past jazz films, which in the past have delineated the boundaries of the white gaze better than showing where the music came from or how it can transcend. White listening and patronage don’t really enter the narratives of these new films as anything other than distraction or necessary inconvenience.
Earlier this year, critic Kevin Whitehead released “Play the Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories in Film,” an overview of jazz’s long history on screen. As he notes, jazz and cinema grew up together in the interwar period. But in those years and far beyond, writes Whitehead, the films repeatedly whitewashed jazz history: “In film for film, African-Americans who invented music are marginalized when white characters don’t push them completely off the screen . ”
It applied to “New Orleans,” a 1947 film starring Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday that was originally intended to be about Armstrong’s rise but was rewritten at the behest of its producers to focus on a story of white romance. It applied to “Paris Blues”, a 1961 vehicle for Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier, based on a novel about the interracial love affairs of two jazz musicians. However, this key element has been more or less deleted from the script. Ultimately, the film is about Newman’s trombonist Ram’s struggle to convince himself and others that jazz is worthy of his obsession. He insists that a career as an improvising musician requires such a unique dedication that he cannot sustain a relationship.
In the last few years, jazz has emerged most prominently on screen in the work of Damien Chazelle. His “Whiplash” (2014) and “La La Land” (2016) tell the stories of young white men who, like Ram, have painfully dedicated themselves to jazz and the associated feeling of excellence. In these films, jazz is a challenge and an albatross. But in “Sylvies Liebe”, “Ma Raineys Black Bottom” and “Soul” the music is more of an ointment: a river of possibility flowing through a hostile country and – as Rainey says in Wilson’s script – simply the language of life .
“Whiplash” focuses on the relationship between a demonic music teacher (played by JK Simmons in an Oscar-winning performance) and his most dedicated young student, Andrew (Miles Teller), who is driven by a desire to become a drum master. The film offers an insight into the current life after jazz in conservatories, in which the students learn their language using diagrams and theoretical frameworks. However, most teachers pay little attention to the spiritual or social properties of music. Again, we run into the slightly misogynistic – and deeply depressing – idea that devotion to music cannot coexist with romantic love and caring: Andrew’s dating behavior is disastrous, and he proudly declares that it’s music.
“La La Land” follows a pianist, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who left music school for a few years. At first he saw him dyspeptically hit the tape deck in his convertible and tried to memorize the notes on a recording of Thelonious Monk as if they were timetables. He sees himself as the guardian of the past successes of jazz and is committed to the opening of a club that preserves what is often referred to as “pure” jazz. It’s a cultural legacy that, as a fellow musician played by John Legend gently reminds him, hasn’t exactly asked for his help – though that doesn’t put him off.
There is a big difference between these characters’ relationships with jazz and those of, for example, Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), the saxophonist in “Sylvie’s Love”, or Joe, the pianist in “Soul”. While Sylvie Robert watches while playing, she sees him settle deep inside himself. There is no gap between what he is on and off the stage other than that he could be freer up there. Performing doesn’t become an unhealthy obsession; So life is.
While “Sylvie’s Love” depends on a “Paris Blues” -like tension between art and romance, the two can ultimately coexist. Spike Lee’s “Mo ‘Better Blues” (1990) and “Crooklyn” (1994) were halfway there and showed what it looks like for jazz musicians to have loving marriages. (Lee, whose father is a jazz musician, doesn’t make it seem easy. But possible? Yes.) “Sylvie’s Love” takes this conflict and melts it away like great film romance can.
On many levels, “Soul” is the most expansive and impressive of the new jazz films. Joe, a middle school pianist and band teacher, is about to die when his mind creeps into the Great Before, where uninitiated souls prepare to invade bodies at birth. There he meets 22, an unruly soul who has failed to persuade a human body.
In his classroom, Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) preaches the glory of jazz improvisation, drawing on a true story that haunted the famous pianist Jon Batiste, who made the music Joe plays, the film’s director, Docter, and the co-director had told Powers. “This is the moment I fell in love with jazz,” Joe recalls the first time he walked into a jazz club as a kid. He caresses the piano keys as he speaks. “Hear this!” he says. “See, the tune is just an excuse to get you out.”
After an accident lands Joe in intensive care and his soul drifts out of his body, he and 22 come up with a plan to bring him back to life. He finds out that all souls need a “spark” to touch their passion and guide them through life. He knows immediately that he plays the piano. That is his purpose in life. But one of the spiritual guides and advisors who populate the Great Before (all called Jerry) quickly makes it clear. “We don’t assign purposes,” said Jerry. “Where did you get this idea from? A spark is not a soul’s purpose. Oh, you mentors and your passions – your “intentions”, your meanings of life! So basic. “
Your conversation remains wonderfully open. But the point becomes clear, subtle as it is: Above meaning, above purpose, above any means to an end, there is only life. That is, music.