I wasn’t keen when I first heard about the movie called Green Book because it sounded uninteresting. Then, last weekend, I learned about the premiere of this movie sponsored by Steinway Gallery Singapore. I perked up immediately. Finding out that one of my favourite (very) young pianists, Toby Tan, performed live on a Steinway piano before the show piqued my curiosity further. Due to my various commitments, I was only able to watch it yesterday. I’ve been thinking of watching it again. And again. (So I’ll wait for the Blu-ray to be available.)
Inspired by a true story, it is about a working-class Italian-American bouncer named Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) who becomes the driver for an African-American pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) for a concert tour in the Southern states. The title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide for safe travel through America’s racial segregation.
I was captivated from the opening scene which takes place in New York in 1962, in front of the Copacabana at The Bronx. Here, jazz music and the first song, That Old Black Magic by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, is heard. The nightclub is to be closed for renovations for two months and Tony needs to find another source of income. One day, he gets a call to interview for a job as a driver for a “doctor”; he is surprised (so am I!) to find that Dr Shirley is not a medical doctor but a pianist who lives in an apartment above the Carnegie Hall. This first encounter did not go well as Tony’s flippant, uncultured behaviour clashes with Don’s sophisticated, reserved demeanor: but Tony is hired as Don need someone who can help him stay out of trouble during the tour. Tony feels uncomfortable being asked to act properly while Don is disgusted by Tony’s habits. However, they witness and endure appalling injustices on the road and find a newfound respect for each other’s talents. In so doing, they nurture a friendship and understanding that would change both their lives.
The screenplay is well-written: besides the portrayal of humanity, there are many layers of family, culture, honesty, dignity, genius, respect, acceptance, stereotypes, racism, class, friendship and especially music. There must have been fifty well-known songs and pieces, and I enjoyed every one of them, especially Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1, Erik Satie’s Valse Ballet and Chopin’s Etude Op 25 No 11 (Winter Wind). Others include Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies and songs sung by Aretha Franklin, Charlie Checker, Bobby Page and The Riff Raffs, The Clovers, Timmy Jay, The Blackwells, Little Richard, Frank Sinatra, Franki Valli and The Four Seasons, and Nat King Cole.
The cinematography is great too. The location managers and crew spared no effort in scouting the tour route – the long drives to Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Cedar Rapids in Iowa, Louisville in Kentucky, Raleigh in North Carolina, Macron in Georgia, Memphis in Tennessee, Little Rocks in Arkansas, Louisiana, Tupelo in Mississippi, and Birmingham in Alabama. The director of photography and the teams involved in the visual and special effects (especially the stunts) have done an amazing job. Of course I must not forget to mention the many Steinway pianos featured in the movie!