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Movie review: ‘Ma Rainey’ dazzles until it fizzles near the end

Ed Symkus
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Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) belts out the blues at a recording session.

Not very cinematic - most of it takes place in a couple of small rooms - with a weak and very sudden out-of-left-field climax, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is nevertheless a marvelously entertaining film that highlights a superb ensemble cast and a couple of standout performances.

Adapted from August Wilson’s play, which premiered on Broadway in 1984, it’s a fictional story about a real person. Back in the 1920s, the big-voiced Ma Rainey was content to be nicknamed “Mother of the Blues,” she pulled in crowds for live shows, and her records, though not smash hits, sold well. The film looks in on what could have been a typical recording session in 1927 Chicago, when silver-toothed Rainey (Viola Davis) arrived at her regular recording studio, got together with some players she’d worked with before, and committed a few sides to wax.

A good deal of the film is about the music that was played that day, but a major portion of it has to do with the sort of exploitation displayed by white studio owners - and record labels - over black artists. Yet the elegantly written dialogue, fervently delivered by the whole cast, also gets into the passions and creative juices flowing through the musicians, some resulting professional jealousy, a bit of sexual tension and, in the case of Rainey, the incensed reactions of a proud and sometimes egotistical artist who stood up for herself when she knew someone was taking advantage of her.

The players, who really set the scene before Rainey gets there, are trombonist and leader Cutler (Colman Domingo), easygoing bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), veteran pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), and upstart trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman), who get into some good-natured bickering that turns into arguing about musical arrangements. When the moody and demanding Rainey finally shows up, she’s in the company of her stammering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) - who she wants to speak on a song - and her slinky lover Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). There’s also the penny-pinching studio owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and Rainey’s hapless manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos). This is not going to be a smooth recording session.

Every character has an opinion that they feel needs to be heard, and each musician is a great storyteller. But the strongest of them, the ones that talk either the loudest or the fastest, are Ma and Levee. Ma has been around the block, she knows that even though she carries a physical and emotional weariness, she can deliver the goods, and she doesn’t intend to let anyone mess around with her vision or her art. Levee is a young whippersnapper, a talented trumpeter who writes his own music and arrangements, has ambitions of starting his own band and, like Ma, isn’t interested in anyone else’s thoughts about what he does. Also, Ma and Levee don’t like each other, and there will be some blatant head-butting.

But there’s work to do this afternoon, with four songs scheduled to be recorded, despite disagreements (over arrangements) and unreasonable demands (Ma won’t sing without a cold Coke), and absurd decisions (recording Sylvester over and over, till he beats the stammer).

It gets done, but not before emotions run raw, a couple of the characters “misbehave,” and a variety of problematic agreements are reached. Davis masters the art of lip-sync; it’s hard to believe that it’s the voice of Maxayn Davis on the soundtrack, and not hers. And Boseman, in his final performance (he died in August), is absolutely on fire, in a heartrending monolog for the ages that explains what appears to be his self-centered behavior and his thoughts on white men exploiting black men.

The atmosphere is constantly changing. The basement recording studio is sometimes charged with danger, it can smooth out into camaraderie, and all of it is eventually inundated by a sense of social injustice. Growing tensions are seamlessly built, and it’s not till the ending, which is supposed to be a shock, but comes across as rather pedestrian, that the film disappoints. Viewers will be remembering the great cast and characters long after they’ve forgotten what happened to them.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” premieres on Netflix on Dec. 18.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson; directed by George C. Wolfe

With Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts

Rated R