Sunday 31 March 2019

Green Book by Vallelonga, Currie & Farrelly

This film was entirely wonderful, and full of surprises. 

For a start I was wrong-footed by the place it begins — the Copacabana night club in New York in 1962, where we establish the character of Tony Vallelonga, known as Tony Lip because he's such a persuasive talker.

Tony is played by Viggo Mortensen looking bulky and very much gone to seed in a stellar performance. He is a bouncer at the club, existing on the fringes of organised crime — though the movie takes pain to make it clear that he doesn't want to get too close to the real bad guys.

And Tony has a down-at-heels but rather idyllic home life, with a couple of kids and the enchanting Linda Cardellini as his wife Dolores.

The first note of conflict sounds when we discover the racial attitudes of Tony and his friends, which are incredibly deftly delineated in a scene where Dolores can't be left alone with the black workmen who have come to put down some flooring.

Tony is feeling a financial squeeze because the Copacabana has had to close for a couple of months for renovations. So he reluctantly agrees to take a job as driver and minder with Dr Shirley, a waspish and aristocratic black musician, played superbly by Mahershala Ali (who was previously so good as the drug dealer in Moonlight).

Dr Shirley is embarking on a tour down South, a dangerous business in the segregated USA of that time. The Green Book of the title was a real publication, a guide for African Americans which listed the (generally few and squalid) hotels where they were permitted to stay.

I immediately braced myself for the ordeal that Shirley was about to encounter. And I also had a pleasant tingle of anticipation. His hiring of Tony was clearly a smart move. Tony is a tough and resourceful guy.

I looked forward to his confrontation with the inevitable redneck knuckleheads, as he was forced to defend his employer.

And I was not disappointed.

The trajectory of this movie was very clear. The journey of these two characters would also become a journey of self discovery and enlightenment, and Tony's racial prejudice would fall away, while Shirley's snobbery towards Tony would melt and vanish.

Well, that's pretty much what happens. But it in no way diminished my profound enjoyment of this magnificent film.

Dr Shirley is a pianist and he embarks on his travels with two other musicians, both white, a cellist and a bass player — I thought this was a very unusual musical combination, but that's because I expected Shirley to be a jazz musician.

In fact he plays popular versions of classical music in a super high speed, virtuosic piano style (Ali's work on the keyboard is truly impressive. He must have practised like a demon). 

Effectively, as is acknowledged in the film, Dr Shirley is a kind of black Liberace. And like Liberace, he has to conceal his sexuality.

This entire movie is beautifully done, carefully setting up engrossing situations and playing them out in the most satisfying manner. It's abundant with opportunities for audience delight in a way I haven't experienced in a film for a long time.

I assumed this was a (brilliant) work of fiction, though when Dr Shirley was referred to by his first name, Don, a distant bell began to ring in my memory. And at the very end of the picture they reveal that it's based on a true story.

Ah yes, of course. I'd heard of the Don Shirley trio. But having so thoroughly enjoyed the story thinking it was entirely invented, this sudden revelation blew my mind.

Since I've seen the picture, I've come across some criticism of it because it didn't adhere completely to historical fact (a common complaint for movies based on real people).

To me this is an utterly absurd objection. I adored this movie when I thought it was completely fictional. To discover it's a tiny bit fictional certainly isn't going to reduce my admiration for it.

Astonishingly, Green Book is the work of director Peter Farrelly — famed for his work on gross-out comedies, There's Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber. Farrelly also contributed to the outstanding screenplay.

The other writers involved were Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga — Tony's son.

I loved Green Book. I urge you to see it.

(Only one poster at Imp Awards. The "For your consideration" poster is from Cinematerial. The "Recognizes seismic changes" one is from Gold Poster. The Chinese poster of the steering wheel is from Alizila. The stylish green art deco poster by the talented Chung Kong is from his website. The striking image of the car on the keyboards is from Poster Spy, and is the work of Eileen Steinbach. The cover of the real Don Shirley album, which features hilariously in the dialogue of the film, is from Discogs. Good luck finding a copy since this movie came out!)


  1. This movie has been low on my list but I do intend to see it. It sounds interesting.

    Regarding the objections you’ve seen, you might not have gotten the full brunt of it in Britain. "Green Book" has a backlash here in America ... and it's specifically here in America where the backlash resides. There is a strong contingent of people here who automatically hate any movie which even sniffs at the white savior trope. Another group (with some crossover) despises the fact that this movie made Ali the "supporting actor." Some say this is a movie which tries to absolve white people of their guilt for segregation by showing a good white man and changing history to support that idea. Because of these "flaws" they say it's a bad movie and no one should see it.

    They say a lot of things.

    There's even a very strong movement in America toward only ever hiring someone who *is* a type of person for the role as that person. Bryan Cranston took lot of flak for "taking away a role from a person who uses a wheelchair" in a new movie and then daring to suggest that it was okay for him to perform that role. There are also accusations of other actors taking roles away from trans performers if you're not trans yourself. It’s a quite disturbing trend in America.

    This article gives a few examples:

    And this Saturday Night Live skit puts a humorous spin on it:

  2. Thank you for such a thoughtful and detailed response! It's a bit dismaying that such a fine film — it's utterly mainstream and classic Hollywood and really quite safe and standard, but nonetheless utterly gratifying — has attracted such negative comment. (And I certainly don't see the Tony Lip character as any kind of a saviour... he's a thug groping towards enlightenment!) I know what you mean about this tendency to cast only people who virtually are the character in the story. Followed to its logical conclusion, autobiography becomes the only valid possible form. Thank you again for reading and commenting.