Branford Marsalis: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Soundtrack review – Chicago 1927 revisited

August Wilson’s 1982 play, and the 2020 Netflix film, are about a lot more than music, but Gertude “Ma” Rainey (“Mother of the Blues”) was a real person, and the action takes place around what was a real recording session. Music, and how it’s treated, is the basic metaphor here, so music is an important accompaniment to the story. In this case – like the clothes, the cars and the surrounding scene – it must also persuade us that we are in Chicago in 1927.

Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis. Photograph: Eric Ryan Anderson

Saxophonist Branford Marsalis has certainly spared no effort in recreating authentic period sounds. With banjo at one end of an enormous list of instruments and washboard at the other, all that’s missing is the scratch and hiss of an old record. Film music comes and goes with the action, often allowed only the briefest of snatches. Heard at its full length here, Marsalis’s work, both recreation and original composition, is as close to perfection as I could imagine.

In the film, the title role is indelibly played by Viola Davis, although her singing voice is mainly supplied by Maxayn Lewis, whose bitter, unforgiving tones bring Ma Rainey startlingly to life.


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