Green Book, Peter Farrelly’s latest film has already claimed three Golden Globe Awards including awards for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and the Best Supporting Actor trophy for Mahershala Ali.
These awards were certainly well deserved, as Green Book is an affecting film and one with a message that is timely in this era of increasing social fragmentation and friction.
Farrelly, previously best known for hits such as Dumb And Dumber, There’s Something About Mary and Shallow Hal, makes the switch from comedy to directing drama seamlessly and he has created a classic ‘road movie’ that deftly blends humour, action, raw emotion and wonderful music into a powerful 130 minute ride through the Deep South of the United States. The audience travel alongside the main protagonists, as we are put through a probing examination of our own habitual attitudes and prejudices.
The plot is based around the true story of Frank Vallelonga (aka ‘Tony Lip’), a bouncer at New York’s Copacabana nightclub, who is approached to take up short term employment, during the Copa’s closure for renovations, as a driver for jazz musician, Doctor Don Shirley.
His job description also turns out to be one that requires some of his muscular ‘negotiating skills’, as the contract is to drive this idiosyncratic Afro-American pianist to every gig scheduled in the racial powder keg of the Southern states of America during Shirley’s 1962 concert tour.
Tony must also take along the ‘Green Book’ – a guide to ‘negro friendly’ establishments that will allow Shirley to have a hassle free place to sleep and be served a decent meal.
The job turns out to be an eye opener for the cocky insular Italian New Yorker who has lived his life entirely within the shadows of his family home, amongst his own people. His lack of worldliness has left him with some ugly traits and a raft of questionable views about any people who are different to him, especially Afro-Americans. The film confronts such attitudes and exposes some residual problem areas that still exist now a half a decade on.
Viggo Mortenson had to put on thirty pounds of extra weight to play the role of Tony the Lip (and he may have possibly gained a few more during filming if the amount of junk food he consumes during the film is real!), and spent some time with the real life family of Vallelonga to learn more about his personal quirks and to perfect the vocal dialect of the Vallelonga clan. This was time and effort well spent, as his performance as the middle aged tough guy who has spent his life amidst the mobsters, and the movers and shakers who frequent the Copa, and who has to accommodate an entirely new world view as he takes a black performer into the most openly racist and homophobic areas of his own country, is totally convincing and emotionally moving.
Mahershala Ali is riveting as the troubled eccentric genius, Don Shirley. Shirley, a classical pianist who studied his craft in conservatoriums in Russia and in the States, found it hard to carve a niche in the entertainment field. White audiences simply could not accept a black man playing the classics, and black audiences found his music too ‘white’. By way of compromise, Shirley found a way of amalgamating classical pieces and popular contemporary tunes and discovered a middle ground that would allow him to play to white audiences with great success.
Ali’s pernickety perfectionist take on Shirley’s character works beautifully to accentuate the contrast between the two main protagonists. His aloof, superior air initially rankles his new driver, but as the weeks roll by, both begin to see beyond their superficialities and recognise the human dignity and common core values that lay beneath. The depth of emotion Ali sums up when Shirley reveals the depth of his frustration and isolation is a superb piece of acting.
Many of the supporting cast are non-actors, and instead are actual friends and relatives of the real Tony Lip who died in back in 2013, just three months before his friend of five decades, Don Shirley, also passed away. This risky casting decision actually works well and the family scenes have a clear sense of warmth and authenticity about them.
Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife, Dolores, allows the film to reinforce its wholesome family values without making this depiction too sentimental, and her scenes, as she reads her husband’s intermittent letters from the road, are heartwarming and endearing.
Chronologically structured, following the tour as it wends its way from city to city, the film subsequently has a natural flow that allows the development of the relationship to grow as it is tested by the tribulations and ordeals that befall them as the tour progresses.
The music in the film is superb, and the modern pianist, Kris Bowers, has done a magnificent job contemporising Shirley’s compositions and arrangements whilst the trio of musicians who play in the film continually play up a storm.
Green Book was co-written by Farrelly, Brian Currie and Tony Lip’s son, Nick Vallelonga, and collectively they have created a powerful story of courage, respect and friendship from a forgotten historical event which speaks powerfully to our era and pushes a convincing case for understanding and compromise to prevail over mistrust and exclusion.
Green Book is highly recommended viewing, and will be in cinemas everywhere from January 24, with some preview screenings scheduled for Sunday January 20 at select cinemas.