In this year’s awards season there are many films looking long and deep into racism—whether fictional, or documentaries (cross-reference below). In director Peter Farrelly’s wonderfully conceived and realization—along with co-writers Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie—of a “based on actual incidents” film ideally mixes big-stroke fact with situational invention, finding the best of both narrative worlds.
But as good as the storytelling and acting is, it’s really the music—mostly from the legendary Don Shirley Trio—that binds everything together from prelude to coda.
And a very special shout-out to composer Kris Browers, who—as piano double for Mahershala Ali—ought to get an Oscar for Best Supporting Musician, if only such a category existed.
The premise is simplicity itself: a distinguished pianist (Ali gives his best performance to date), must swallow his considerable black pride while on an extended tour of the South in the ‘60s. He must endure countless put-downs whether forced into negro-only lodging, or not welcome in the dining room of the 400 patrons he is about to enthrall with his musical artistry. To keep the train running on time, an Italian bouncer is hired (Viggo Mortensen aces the role as Tony Lip), who may or may not be packing heat wins the job of Driving Dr. Shirley (with apologies to Miss Daisy).
Naturally, and relatively effortlessly, the unlikely pair morph from frequent adversaries to best buds as this two-hander road trip unfolds. Both have their weaknesses: Lip, a hot temper and early bigotry; Shirley, a love of Cutty Sark and bathhouse release.
Due to the fact that co-writer Vallelonga’s dad was the real-life Tony Lip, the production has more truth than convenient moments of storytelling.
Tellingly, Shirley’s confession that he initially set out to be a classical pianist only to discover that a black Arthur Rubenstein was unthinkable in those days (there is still some ways to go on that career track, methinks), sets up one of the best scenes when the heroic artist unleashes a smidgen of Chopin on a tired upright—rather than the contractual Steinway, that could stand head and shoulders with such performers as Murray Perahia any day.
Only the final approach to the film’s double bar gets a tad saccharine, but all that came before makes this a journey into the great black-white divide well worth taking. JWR