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Driving Don Shirley

 

Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali and director Peter Farrelly (inset) in Universal’s Green Book

 

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On November 21, Universal Pictures will release Green Book, a film directed by Peter Farrelly, and starring Mahershala Ali as African-American pianist Don Shirley, and Viggo Mortensen as “Tony Lip,” a New York bouncer who worked as Shirley’s driver during his 1962 concert tour of the South.

Shirley’s musical style can most easily be described as varied.  His cabaret-style jazz playing at times sounds like “Eric Satie meets Erroll Garner,” while his impressive classical work took him to, among others, performances with the Boston Pops Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, and Detroit and Chicago Symphonies.  He also composed several symphonies, string quartets, and classical piano pieces.  His work caught the attention of Duke Ellington, who hired Shirley to play at his 1955 Carnegie Hall performance.  His career featured a long stint with Cadence Records, where, during the 1950’s and 60’s he recorded 16 albums, including 1965’s “Water Boy” which — astonishingly, given its nuanced beauty — reached #40 on Billboard’s Hot 100.  (He also recorded for Columbia and Atlantic).  His arrangements of tunes like “I Remember April,” “The Nearness of You,” The Way You Look Tonight,” and “Easy Living” are unique, memorable, and not to be missed. 

There are, sadly, countless stories of the racism African-American musicians traveling the highways of 20th century America routinely encountered, but Shirley’s is little known, and Farrelly is a seemingly unlikely choice to tell it.  Along with his brother Bobby, Farrelly is best known as director of the brash, quirky and popular “gross-out” comedies There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber (also a road movie but difficult to imagine it has anything in common with Green Book).

According to the film’s September 11 review by Variety critic Peter Debruge, Green Book  — “an indispensable travel guide listing friendly places to stay and tips for avoiding trouble in the Jim Crow South” – may be “inspirational on its surface,” but “the film presents a pretty bleak picture of intolerance in 1962 America, when segregation and other openly racist policies would have made such a trip a dangerous prospect for a wealthy, well-educated black man, with or without a bruiser like Frank Anthony Vallelonga (‘Tony Lip’) to watch his back.”

Debruge characterizes the film as a “crowd-pleaser in the family-friendly vein of ‘Hidden Figures’ and ‘The Help’ — movies that condemn racism as if the problem were already solved rather than still alive and well.”  He writes, “Green Book may as well be ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ in reverse, focusing on the inevitable fireworks when an elegant black man hires an ill-mannered guy from the Bronx to drive him around the South. It works on account of the chemistry between the two leads, both of whom are showing audiences a different side of themselves.”

The film was the winner of the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto Film Festival (an early indicator for possible future, bigger awards) and the trailer for the film — which looks very special — can be viewed below.

 

 

 

 

 

Don Shirley, 1957

 

 

 

A sampling of Don Shirley’s jazz recordings:

 

“Water Boy”

 

“I Remember April”

 

“The Nearness of You”

 

“The Way You Look Tonight”

 

“Easy Living”

 

“New World A-Comin'” by Duke Ellington (with Don Shirley) on piano, from 1955