Viola Davis as Ma Rainey
Photo courtesy of Netflix
5 Things We Learned From The GRAMMY Museum's And Netflix's 'Ma Rainey: Mother Of The Blues' Special
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was one of the most acclaimed music films of 2020, with critics praising its music, mise-en-scène and career-making performances by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Now, music fans can be a fly on the wall as to its conception and production.
The GRAMMY Museum's official streaming service, COLLECTION:live, just aired Ma Rainey: Mother Of The Blues, a 28-minute special presented by Netflix in partnership with the Museum. The special will be available to watch on COLLECTION:live beginning April 13 through May 1.
Featuring the film's co-star Viola Davis, composer Brandord Marsalis and appearances from Jimmy Jam and Bonnie Raitt, Mother Of The Blues was a helpful gateway into Rainey's life and career. Plus, it detailed director George C. Wolfe's vision for bringing August Wilson's play of the same name to living rooms worldwide.
By illuminating Rainey's artistry, sexuality and pre-feminist battles for her autonomy, Mother Of The Blues helps make a luminous film shine even brighter—and provides a watertight argument as to why everyone should be a fan of this long-obfuscated blues pioneer.
Here are five things GRAMMY.com learned from the Ma Rainey: Mother Of The Blues special.
Photo courtesy of Netflix.
Ma Rainey was a shrewd operator
Rainey's unvarnished, warts-and-all persona belied that she ran a tight ship. "Ma was the savviest of businesswomen," singer/songwriter Bonnie Raitt, who inducted Rainey into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, explains in the special. "Unlike her peers, she kept tight control over her music royalties and demanded to be paid fairly by the white record labels."
Only seven pictures of her exist
While this may beat three extant photos of Robert Johnson, the visual cues for the Black Bottom filmmakers were still limited. What the filmmakers did have was verbal testament to her appearance: slathered-on makeup, a mouthful of gold teeth, sweat pouring down her face under the lights. "I thought to myself, 'What if the makeup is beautifully imperfect?'" Davis recalls in the special.
Her wigs deserve a special of their own
"She was a tough, strong woman with a horsehair wig," costume designer Ann Roth says in the special with a laugh. "What more do you want?" And to capture that wig, she and producer Todd Black sought out Mia Neil, a top-level wigmaker. She estimates it took "60 to 80 hours" to produce the horsehair wig, a turnaround time she calls "unheard of" in that business.
She empowered LGBTQ people
Being that Ma Rainey what people now understand as feminism, it would be incorrect to pin that tag on her. That said, her songs were harmonious with feminist values and ahead of their time in their themes of self-ownership and sexual liberation. "Though she may not have set out to do so, Ma penned the first lesbian anthem when she recorded 'Prove It On Me' in 1928," singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge contends. She then introduces the tune, in whch Rainey proudly crows that she prefers the company of women.
Branford Marsalis wasn't beholden to the era
In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Rainey's band contains an upright bass—even though at that time, a tuba would have been preferred for the low end. This didn't phase Branford Marsalis, who understood he needed to capture the sound and feeling of the late '20s rather than try to recreate it in granular detail. "One person said in an interview, 'That must have been a lot of pressure! Ma Rainey's famous!'" Marsalis recalls. "I'm like, 'No, bro. Ma Rainey was famous.' Nobody knows Ma Rainey's music, so there was no pressure in that regard."