Perhaps the biggest story of this weekend’s Oscars is also the saddest. Late actor Chadwick Boseman, who died last year after a long battle with cancer, is up for a posthumous Academy Award. It would surely have been the first of many, but for the tragic circumstances.
Considered the strong favourite for Actor in a Leading Role, Boseman’s likeable turn as ambitious trumpeter Levee in blues-soaked biopic Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one of his best. Filled with witty one-liners and cheeky grins across set – not to mention the impressive musicality involved: Boseman learned to play trumpet and sings in the film – it’s the kind of performance that only a first-rate talent in his prime could come up with.
To learn more about the last work of Marvel‘s foremost Black pin-up, we sat down with Ma Rainey composer and legendary saxophonist Branford Marsalis. He remembers Chadwick as a “serious” and committed artist who was “there to work” – but that doesn’t mean he didn’t know how to have a good time…
Chadwick was full of surprises
The Black Panther icon always gave 100 per cent, even in scenes that weren’t actually being filmed. “[After filming], we get these guys in the studio to recreate the scene and have [musicians] play along so everything will be exact,” explains Marsalis. For the scene in question, Marsalis’ bass player (a real-life pro) was overdubbing the jazzy riff from an early bit in the movie when Toledo, played by Glynn Turman, makes a speech about how Black people want to party all the time.
“There’s a part [in that scene] based on an old Jelly Roll Morton song called ‘Doctor Jazz‘,” says Marsalis. “It goes: ‘When the world’s gone wrong/And I got the blues/He’s the one who makes me put on my dancing shoes’. When they got to that Chadwick just belted out ‘Wooaahh when the world is wrong…’ and when it was over I was like ‘This is the one, they’re not gonna get this better in post, forget it.’ So that’s what’s in the movie. It was completely unexpected because it was a bass session, and he just nailed it. It was perfect.”
Nobody knew he was unwell
Boseman’s four-year fight against colon cancer is well-documented now, but until his death he kept everything private. Not even those who worked closely with him had any clue.
“We didn’t know he was sick,” says Marsalis. “Chadwick was there to work. He was working on other films after this, he was just moving along… They were laughing and having a good time, but it was all about the work and everyone was serious.”
The way the actors held their instruments was crucial
Acting among Oscar-winners (Viola Davis) is hard enough, but the extreme detail each cast member went into on Ma Rainey was next level. Luckily, they had three-time Grammy winner Marsalis on hand to make sure they looked like real musicians.
“The actors were all great: Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts and Colman Domingo really worked on getting the positions of their instruments right,” he says. “It’s really minute detail but musicians play instruments with a certain physicality that differs based on the instrument. So I wanted to make sure that they physically looked like they were playing the instruments they were playing. On shoot days, they would all come over as a group and we’d put on the track and they’d play along with it – and I would just look at them. It wasn’t about: ‘Oh, make sure your fingers are exact’ because that takes decades to get right and we didn’t have that kind of time. So the thing that I stressed with them was that you have to sing along with the solos and learn them – because once you learn them you can make sure your hands are not moving when there’s no sound.”
The Deep South had a massive impact on the music
Ma Rainey, the 1920s ‘Mother of the Blues’, is a little-known figure with a huge legacy, long-overdue her moment in the spotlight. As such, Marsalis (who was born and raised around African American music mecca New Orleans) drew on the Georgia-native’s Deep South roots when he was putting together the film’s band.
“New Orleans is the only place left where musicians still play outside with regularity. I am accustomed, based on geography, to hearing instruments sound a certain way,” explains Marsalis. “So because the music was supposed to be from the ’20s, when everyone played outside all the time for as long as they could, I wanted to find musicians who had what I call ‘outside sound’ as opposed to the controlled environment of an inside sound.”
‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is streaming now on Netflix