Ma Rainey’s Small Axe

The “Lovers Rock” episode of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” showed me again why I love reggae. (The series premiered on November 20, 2020 on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S. It won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for 2020’s Best Picture.)

I admit I was once pretty insufferable about reggae. 

“How about some Allman Brothers?” a visitor once asked me in my Hamilton Hill apartment. “No,” I said. “I only play reggae these days.”

Through that obsession, I knew the series title came from a Bob Marley song lyric: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe,” a proudly determined assertion of underdog power. I recognized most of the songs on the funky soundtrack, and understood lots of the slang. New-to-me terms in the dialog, delivered in the lilting fluidity of West Indian/London language, delighted me with its fresh brashness. And in key ways, this hour-long celebration of Caribbean culture transplanted to Europe is much more than the vivid depiction of a party.

We see it from the set up, as men move furniture from a front room, others haul in and assemble a massive rock club-scale sound system. Women fix food in the kitchen, post a menu on the wall. Meanwhile, men and women dress and groom, discuss and joke about possible mates. 

Then the music starts.

Guests eye each other warily and warmly, then pair off and dance. Couples form and fade, it’s profoundly sexy, a ro-dance that all but melts the screen as the music pulsates, throbs, bobs and booms. For every riff, every beat, a well-dressed body moves in sensual sync. Reggae rocks so many beats at once that all the motion on the screen amplifies the sound, and vice versa. It’s feedback, it spirals upward and it’s loudly joyful.

In that throb, “Lovers Rock” shows two extraordinary things happen.

During several songs, the DJ turns down the sound system, but the music continues. EVERYBODY sings, with harmony, and it’s so fun, so beautiful.

As the music intensifies, the dancefloor gender balance gradually shifts. Soon, the room seems full only of men, moving in more and more frenetic joy – until those men ARE the music.

Sure, there’s a story, a plot, moved forward with overlapping incidents and episodes. There are courtship vignettes, passionate pairings so hot that sweat in the sound-filled air condenses and runs down the wall. There are confrontations that arise, erupt, shift, resolve and fade, like songs. But McQueen’s always moving camera also shows peace-making, protectiveness and nurturing.

There is false and true love.

But the echo that “Lovers Rock” leaves in my soul is the ecstasy of the music.

The music.

That’s what I want music to do for me, to give me that ecstasy; it’s why I listen – not that I can imagine myself giving myself so joyfully, physically to it.

The best writing about music, and films showing the making of it, reach for that feeling. But, for me, “Lover’s Rock” comes closest of anything I’ve seen to showing how it feels. 

The Denzel Washington-produced film of August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” shows how music can confer memories we don’t actually have for ourselves. Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapted the script from Wilson’s work and director George C. Wolfe staged it for film. Telling a story now a century old, the film and its music operate like a time machine to a specific time and place. But the force of the music removes the distance, the sense of otherness, and invites us back, or over there.

Compared to the immersive naturalism of “Lover’s Rock,” “Ma” feels arch and stagey at times. Since a play has to rely on talk, telling us its meaning, rather than the kinetic way a film shows us – and in two dimensions rather than three – Wilson’s words must carry the action. They do; with supercharged narrative force but also with nuance in close-ups of actors’ faces. 

However, even those sections that show rather than explain feel enclosed. When a curious character repeatedly assaults a locked door, frustrated at not knowing what’s beyond it, the metaphor feels a bit too on the nose: The payoff feels blunted by the recognition he’s burst into another, even more confined space than what he left. The escape he sought, then won, shows us how impenetrable is his bondage. He stands in an airshaft. It’s walls loom high, unclimbable. 

The play/movie’s conflict is about the power and freedom that same character restlessly seeks. He wants to make his own art, freed from the mercenary mission of accompanying another artist, the singer. 

He faces a double confinement, concentric barriers. The singer’s power is the engine that brought him into the studio where the action plays out; and she is a force of nature played by Viola Davis. At her quietest, she is still calmly formidable. When she’s getting what she wants, she feels no need to rip anyone’s face off with a nuclear glance or volcanic words.

She has a clear map for her players to follow and resists their pencilling in alternate routes to their own self-expression.

She steamrolls dissent, insisting on her vision of her songs. 

A subtler and more alien and therefore more unbeatable force is the business. White men own the means of production: the studio, the machines, the means of making money from talent they lack but think they own.

I’ve spoiled the story enough that I now worry I’ve waved you away from watching it. 

But my intent is the opposite. I want you to see it.

Allowing for the not always perfectly realized effort to take a play to the screen, it is often simply and breathtakingly great, largely because of the casting and performances. The hype is correct. The late, great Chadwick Boseman’s last appearance may be his greatest and Viola Davis confirms again that she’s our most all-purpose powerful actor now. 

They give life to the place and time and people that Wilson’s words sketch, framed in a skilled supporting cast. We see the limited and limiting world of art and artists in a mercantile world they inhabit. They have no hope of owning any of it except those moments when they perform. It is a lively cultural kaleidoscope, but also a period piece crackling with timeless concerns. The film-makers wisely waste little energy on atmosphere. Instead, word images of pride and creative energy at work create an engine of kinetic striving; voices in rooms build a world. Then, however, the imposed boundaries of what can be achieved even with tremendous talent add up to a heartbreak.

Well, several heartbreaks: Is the murder in “Ma Rainey” worse than the cultural appropriation – a new form of slavery – also shown?

Like the “Small Axe” in Bob Marley’s song and McQueen’s movie, the Black artists are underdogs whose triumph, if there is one, may come too late to benefit them and is almost always owned by others.

Think Van Gogh dying penniless while his works now make millions.

Think disputes over Prince’s estate.

And think – OK, spoiler alert – the horrifying last scene in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – like Pat Boone singing Little Richard songs.

Think of that “oh-shit” moment.

Pretend It’s a City

Another recent TV experience talks about music in ways I like.

While “Small Axe” celebrates the joy music brings, and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” shows how the “business” of show business exploits and destroys it, Fran Lebowitz in the second episode of Martin Scorcese’s “Pretend It’s a City” documentary series provides both comic relief and a surprising reverence.

Interview segments have the hermetic intimacy of “My Dinner With Andre,” while scenes showing Lebowitz walking city streets suggest she’s finding much to annoy her.

A misanthrope celebrated for her cranky impatience with human imperfection, and just as uncompromising in admitting her own, Lebowitz talks in this episode of loving the crude, trash-flashy New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center. When that building literally falls down, it hits as a perfect New York episode of timelessness and decay fighting it out. After concert footage shows the Dolls’ raffish, pioneering fearlessness, Scorcese shows us Marvin Gaye, that suave Motown god. Unlike the Dolls, he’s unselfconsciously at ease with himself. The Dolls, and Lebowitz, perceive the world as cracked mirrors, but always aimed at them. Gaye sings alone, then with a band as he teaches a song to them, singing their parts like Paul McCartney still does. 

After extolling Gaye and Motown, the conversation turns general as it shifts to a restaurant where Lebowitz talks at Scorcese. She tells him music “is centrally important to people. And they love the person who gave this to them…No one is loved like musicians. Musicians are really loved by people because they give them the ability to express their emotions and their memories. There’s no other form that does that. I think musicians – musicians and cooks – are responsible for the most pleasure in human life…music makes people happier, and it doesn’t harm them.”

And then she talks about the time Charles Mingus chased her down the street…