From 'Soul' to 'Lovers Rock' to 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,' celebrating the new Black music movies

Dan DeLuca
Philadelphia Inquirer

It's 1980 in the Notting Hill section of London in "Lovers Rock," the second of director Steve McQueen's Amazon Prime series of five Small Axe movies about life in Caribbean immigrant communities in the United Kingdom.

The exquisite 71-minute film is one of the brightest lights of a burst of new dramatic movies — all prominently featured right now on streaming services — that put lovingly detailed re-creations of different eras in Black music at the center of narratives about protagonists who fall in love, contend with racism, and embark on searches for meaning.

Michael Ward and Amarah-Jae St-Aubyn in "Lovers Rock."

The mind-expanding Pixar animated feature "Soul" on Disney+, with Jamie Foxx voicing an aspiring jazz pianist and Roots drummer Questlove voicing a jazz drummer, has a contemporary setting.

But the other music movies released this pandemic winter — all directed by Black directors — reach back in time.

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," the Netflix adaptation of August Wilson's play, takes place in a Chicago recording studio in 1927. It's directed by George C. Wolfe and stars Viola Davis as powerful "Mother of the Blues" Ma Rainey, and Chadwick Boseman, in his last screen role, as a rebellious but talented sideman.

"Sylvie's Love" on Amazon Prime is a lush romance set in the New York jazz scene of 1950s and 1960s. Former Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha stars as a jazz sax player opposite Tessa Thompson, playing a record store clerk who thinks he can be "the next John Coltrane." Eugene Ashe directs. The film's delicious soundtrack features Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan and casts a wider pop-music net with songs by Bill Haley and Sam Cooke.

Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis and Colman Domingo in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

"One Night in Miami," also on Amazon Prime, pulls from the same era. Directed by Regina King and written by Kemp Powers, it's about a heated conversation in 1964 between Cooke — played here by Philadelphia's Leslie Odom Jr. — and NFL great Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), civil rights leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) on the night that Clay, soon to be known as Muhammad Ali, first became heavyweight champion.

All the movies deliver transfixing musical moments, the most magical being an extended scene in "Lovers Rock" at a "blues party," one of the intimate soirees that originated among Black Britons in the 1950s.

"West Indian people, Black people were not welcome into clubs," director McQueen told Slate. "Therefore, people thought, you know what? We'll make our own. So front rooms were turned into discos."

"Lovers Rock" is a love story between Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward) who meet as the party begins and we hope have a fighting chance as the dawn breaks. The movie is fraught: When St. Aubyn's character attempts to leave the party, she's immediately harassed by racists. But mainly, it is about the connective power of music.

The movie takes its name from the sweetly romantic reggae that flowered in England in the 1970s. The dance floor first heats up when the DJs spin "He's the Greatest Dancer" by Philly soul trio Sister Sledge and "Kung Fu Fighting" by Jamaican singer Carl Douglas.

Jamie Foxx voices the lead character in "Soul."

Then the extraordinary scene happens, as the DJs play "Silly Games," an irresistible 1979 hit by Janet Kay written by Barbadian songwriter Dennis Bovell. (He also has a small role in the film as an upstairs neighbor.)

McQueen's camera lingers. Bodies move to the languid rhythm. Dancers luxuriate in the music's tender intimacy. They sway in time and sing along and, when the DJs let the music drop out, carry the song along on their own. The world outside is banished, the room is transformed.

It's one of the great music moments in movie history.

This season's other films may not peak so spectacularly, but they're all marked by an authentic affection for music making — and a focus on musicians' dedication to their craft — that comes through in the storytelling.

"Music is all I think about, from the moment I wake up in the morning to the moment I fall asleep at night," says Foxx's Joe Gardner at the start of "Soul." "I was born to play."

That joy is heard in "Born to Play," written and performed by Jon Batiste, who plays Gardner's piano parts.

Jazz movies haven't always conveyed the joyfulness that Soul captures. Biopics like Clint Eastwood's 1988 Charlie Parker movie "Bird," starring Forest Whitaker, have focused on tragic geniuses brought down by addiction.

"That was true of Diana Ross when she played Billie Holiday in 'Lady Sings the Blues,' too," notes Lovett Hines, artistic director of the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz. (Holiday is the subject of a new movie, "The People vs. Billie Holiday," by Philadelphia director Lee Daniels, due next month.)

In 2016′s "La La Land," intense commitment to jazz undoes a relationship. In the 2014 Oscar winner "Whiplash," playing jazz is like wearing a hair shirt, with J.K. Simmons as a sadistic teacher.

"I didn't like that one too much," says Hines, who taught Philly jazz greats Christian McBride and Joey DeFrancesco. "I would never throw anything at a student."

Hines was smitten with "Sylvie's Love." "I loved that it was in a record store," he says, giving major points for a moment when Thompson's Sylvie recommends Sonny Rollins' 1957 album "Way out West."

"I was so elated when she pulled that out," Hines says. "Those were the records we all were listening to then."

Likewise for other music in the movie, he says. "We were listening to Little Anthony and the Imperials, too. And Doris Day: She could really hold her own as a jazz singer."

Questlove was also taken with "Sylvie's Love." "Amazeballs," he posted when it was released last month. "Didn't see it coming. Didn't know I needed it."

The Roots drummer has movies on his mind a lot these days. In addition to voicing the drummer on "Soul," he served as a consultant to that film. He's making his directorial debut with "Summer of Soul (... Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)," a documentary about a festival known as "the Black Woodstock" that opens the Sundance Film Festival Jan. 28.

These films that authentically center Black music also center the racial dynamics of the eras in which they're set — and resonate with our own.

In "One Night in Miami," tension arises between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke about whether Cooke, with love songs like "You Send Me," is shirking his responsibility to uplift his people. Malcolm X shames him by playing "Blowin' in the Wind," by "a white boy from Minnesota."

At the heart of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is Black artists' fight to maintain their artistic identity and economic power in a world owned and controlled by white men.

Davis' Rainey is fiercely protective of her art and not about to surrender her dignity. "They don't care at all about me," she says. "All they want is my voice."

Playwright Wilson accords the artist the respect she deserves, but the movie also rages with the knowledge that the deck is stacked against Black musicians.

During a recording session, Levee, the cornet player by Boseman, tries to convince the studio owner to allow him to record songs he's written, but the owner will only buy them — for a fraction of what they're worth.

The movie ends with a scene of exploitation as old as the music business itself: Levee's songs being recorded by a watered-down white band led by a character who's modeled after a real musician with a perfect name for a cultural appropriator: Paul Whiteman.