Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/3/2021 (206 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Music and the movies have gone hand in hand ever since people set foot in a cinema more than a century ago.
March provides some interesting options for those scrolling through their streaming services to watch and listen — or rewatch and relisten — and here are five from a variety of musical and film genres worth checking out:
● Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix) — Oscar buzz surrounds this film that would have received even wider attention if cinemas were allowed to open.
That doesn’t take anything away from this crackling story about blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band during a recording session in Chicago in 1927.
The George C. Wolfe film is based on a play August Wilson, and Wolfe is able to keep much of the play’s theatricality. This shows particularly well during an early sequence when hotshot trumpeter Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman) mouths off with the three other members of a band during a rehearsal, who don’t take well to his arrogant ways.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom may be a film, but the scene also makes you miss theatre. The sooner both come back, the better.
● The Pianist (Netflix) — This 2002 film, which just arrived March 1 to Netflix in Canada, is set during the Holocaust in Krakow, Poland, and follows pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman from Sept. 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany attacked Poland and launched the Second World War.
Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is Jewish and the film follows the atrocities the Nazis perpetrated upon the Jews and the difficult journey Szpilman takes to stay alive.
The Pianist, like many films about the Holocaust, can be difficult to watch, but remembering what happened is necessary. Also, some sequences are so memorable — Szpilman’s encounter with isolation in an apartment will remind many of us in lockdown how easy we really have it — that it’s unforgettable from a cinematic experience as well.
A piano plays a critical part in the the film’s key scene, which is as tense as the wire in the instrument.
The Pianist is directed by Roman Polanski — a Holocaust survivor from Krakow who later in life became one of the first cancel-culture cases long before the term was coined — and it won three Oscars and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s a must-see.
● Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson & the Band (Crave) — Those who love roots-rock standards like The Weight, Up on Cripple Creek and It Makes No Difference ought to check out this look back at the Band and their legend, which seems to keep growing with each passing year.
The Band were four Canadians, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, and Arkansan drummer/vocalist Levon Helm. The group grew out of the Hawks, the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins that toured the South and Toronto in the early 1960s.
They would famously be Bob Dylan’s band when he went electric in 1966 but went on their own two years later with Music From Big Pink, named after a house in Woodstock, N.Y., where they hung out at and created their own sound.
Robertson and Hudson are the only living Band members left, and Hudson is rarely seen these days. Because of that, critics say Once Were Brothers is really Robertson’s view of the Band’s history. Their breakup is famous — their final concert and split, The Last Waltz, is also on Crave — but rarely seen footage and photographs in Once Were Brothers offer a fond memory of the beginnings of Americana music.
● Bachman (CBC Gem) — Guitars play a big part in this doc on Winnipeg’s most famous guitarist. Randy Bachman has a lot of guitars.
He’s also a pretty good storyteller, whether it’s about the early days of the Guess Who, the genesis of the famous guitar riff of American Woman, his heady days with Fred Turner in Bachman-Turner Overdrive or his solo career and his CBC radio show, Vinyl Tap.
The movie takes care of business with regard to Bachman’s basics, but is this the definitive look at his career? These eyes say no, but I’m sure that won’t stop Winnipeg’s fans of the Guess Who or BTO from watching it again and reliving the late 1960s and ’70s.
● What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix) — There’s lots to learn about pianist Nina Simone in this look back at her career in jazz, pop and activism, which makes this documentary more than an eye-opening look at her career; it’s a much-needed lesson in music history and civil rights.
Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon and was a classically trained pianist, but began playing in small jazz clubs in Atlantic City in the early 1950s to earn some money. It was there she took on the name Nina Simone, and thanks to her brilliance on the piano and her unique singing voice, she found success.
The best parts of this doc, directed by Liz Garbus (I’ll Be Gone in the Dark), follow Simone’s forceful fight for civil rights in the United States — songs such as Mississippi Goddam got her blacklisted on radio — and her struggles with bipolar disorder.
What Happened, Miss Simone? is a deep dive into Netflix’s catalogue, but the search is well worth it.
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.