Soundtrack: <I>Ma Rainey's Black Bottom</I>
Issue: January/February 2021

Soundtrack: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

(Top photo, L-R), Viola Davis, director George C. Wolfe and Chadwick Boseman

The opening moments of George C. Wolfe’s new adaptation of the August Wilson play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” take place in the deep South. Crickets and barking dogs overtake the soundtrack as a pair of fleeting figures race through the scene. Soon, their destination is sonically revealed as the moaning and piano-key strikes of a local musical gathering fade in until the viewer sees a throng of people lined up to witness Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) — the “Mother of the Blues” — perform under a massive tent.

From there, Wolfe takes the viewer to the thick of Chicago for a bawdier rendition. Arc lights flare, blast furnaces rage, sewing machines hum and car-and-train traffic roar as the film catches up with its cast of characters, who just arrived for a recording session. Just 90 seconds in and, along with the help of re-recording mixers Skip Lievsay and Paul Urmson (also supervising sound editor), Wolfe is telling his story vibrantly through what you hear.

Skip Lievsay

“We wanted to show the industrial revolution as it applied to people going to the North, because Ma’s rise kind of parallels that migration,” Urmson explains. “It’s all a big combination of Foley and design effects.”

For director Wolfe, it was important to break free of the story’s stage-bound confines where possible, but without sacrificing the integrity of the pot-boiling narrative. However, the first thing Urmson says the director brought up was a key thematic element: He wanted the process of recording a blues sensation like Ma Rainey to feel, for her, like the theft of her sacred art.

“He wanted the quality of the record to be vastly inferior to what she really sounded like,” Urmson says. “Part of that was his feeling that Ma was never as famous as, say, Bessie Smith, or someone from that era, because there were never any good recordings of her. So he wanted this contrast between her singing in the room and the sound in the booth of the etching on the 78 being super thin and bad. It’s a machine stealing her voice.”

Paul Urmson

Urmson used effects like ratchets and gears to enhance the sound of the recording machine, making it somewhat monstrous and ominous in its representation. He also played with bleeding the sounds of the city into the space, leaving the notion of a bustling metropolis just outside those walls.

The bulk of Lievsay’s work as the dialogue and score mixer, meanwhile, came down to wrangling associations and relationships of characters in the room.

“At a certain point you go inside and that’s where the action takes place,” he says. “I did a little trick where I pitched the rooms with reverb. For the wider stuff, like the main recording room, I made a cut of a pretty big room sound for that, because there’s a lot of coming and going and close and far, and it helps for the audience to get the geography of who’s talking and where they are. We panned the voice for the same reason. In the rehearsal room downstairs, it’s a smaller environment and no one really gets far away, but we had the same problem of people in the background and people in the foreground and rehearsing, so we had to have the sound of the band there throughout many of those scenes.”

Lievsay also notes that one challenge Wolfe laid down — or a “gauntlet”, as he calls it — was to make this intimate drama play as big and bold as a Star Wars epic. Whenever possible, Lievsay and Urmson tried to make the recordings sound as if the viewer is standing in the room with the players, hearing that live performance.

“That was physically challenging, to get the material to play like that,” he says. “But to me it was automatic. There’s nothing more exciting than being in the room. It sounds completely different. But people don’t have that perspective. It makes you understand what the recordings are about and how it’s done.”

Ultimately for the duo, it was a gift to be able to work on something that is ultimately in some ways a granular exploration of what they do for a living.

“That was the thing that was fun,” Urmson recalls. “We got to play around with that technology, and then we got to get out of that and have it be this fantastic musical film. The drama of the play totally lends itself to what we do. We’re just trying to support all of that.”

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is currently streaming on Netflix.