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Rated 3.05 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Entertaining and Funny
by James Colt Harrison

Director Peter Farrelly’s film Green Book is not a musical. But it is the best musical of the year. Contradiction? Yes and no. The film is based on a true story of famed African-American musician and recording star Don Shirley from the 1950s and 1960s.

Shirley was an esteemed pianist who mixed classical music with jazz and pop and created his own unique sound with his Don Shirley Trio. Being taught to play the piano at age 2 by his mother, Shirley grew up to be a musical genius. Born in either Kingston, Jamaica, or Pensacola, Florida (discrepancy), Shirley was invited at nine years old to study at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. He learned to speak Russian. At 18 he played with the Boston Pops and a year later he was performing with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Back in “the bad old days,” black performers were not as easily accepted as now. Famed show biz impresario Sol Hurok told Shirley to turn to jazz and pop as nobody would accept him as a concert pianist. This curtailed his pursuit of the classical stage and propelled him to playing in small clubs where he formed his jazz trio. Shirley then created his own style of musical interpretation. He blended classical with popular American music and thus stood out from other performers.

Green Book tells the tale of an already-famous Shirley (Mahershala Ali) traveling though the south on a concert tour with his Italian-American driver Anthony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), called Tony “Lip” for short. Tony’s son Nick Vallelonga wrote the script with Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie. Young Nick obviously wrote episodes he remembered from his own youth, and that gives the film a certain authenticity to family life in an Italian family living in the Bronx. The family scenes are hilarious and paint a portrait of a family who love each other but can get heated in arguments. These scenes cause belly laughs and the audience laughs along with the stereotypical Italian-American family as usually portrayed in films. Having grown up in one such family myself, I can attest that the screaming and yelling and eating to excess bring back vivid memories. It’s all shown with affection but with great humor that makes the audience laugh out loud.

When Shirley is booked on a concert tour through the Deep South, he is in need of a man to drive him from state to state. Tony is working as a bouncer at the famous New York nightclub, The Copacabana, where high society swells hang out with mobsters. Tony is tough, takes no nonsense from the unruly patrons, and would just as soon bust their jaws than allow them to misbehave. Tony grew up in the Bronx, dealt with all the gangsters and shady characters but did not really become one himself. True, he’s crude, uneducated, and has a tendency to slaughter the English language. Tony’s outlook on life is very funny, and his expressions bring many laughs throughout the film. Two-time Oscar® nominee Mortensen is a seasoned actor who plays his Italian role with perfection, even though his own personal roots are Danish. But, a trained actor should be able to play almost any role given him, and Mortensen plays Tony with perfection. He should be up for another Oscar® nomination. Having been born in New York, Mortensen certainly was familiar with “Tony Lip” type of characters while growing up.

Despite the differences in their class, Shirley decides to take a chance on Tony and hires him to be his chauffeur, bodyguard, and companion on the road. Two people couldn’t be more mismatched. Shirley is well educated with a doctorate, a concert pianist, a recording star, and a famous and elegant man. Tony eats with both hands, swears a blue streak, can’t properly conjugate any word in the English language and has an innate charm that you cannot resist!

Regardless of their differences and occasional clashes, the two men manage to get through the south in the 1960s, despite the lingering Jim Crow attitudes and separate hotels, toilets, bars and so forth for blacks and whites. They manage to survive all the slights given to Shirley, a man whose musical credentials and high standing in the concert world should set him apart and above any abuse. Oscar® winner Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) is the perfect actor to play Shirley and has a natural elegance that gives the dignity to play such a credentialed musician.

In addition to the serious look at discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s, the great humor and grudging affection between the two completely different men, the music stands out. Don Shirley’s versions of American composer’s works such as Gershwin and others, is simply delightful. Although Ali is shown playing the piano, movie magic was done with camera angles and lighting to give the illusion that he is actually playing. The real playing was done by Kris Bowers, who not only wrote the film’s score but also doubled Mahershala’s piano playing. 

This is probably the best and most enjoyable film of the year.

(Released by Universal Pictures/ DreamWorks/ Amblin Partners and rated “PG-13” for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence, and suggestive material.)

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