by Charles Boyle
Set in the US in 1962, Green Book is the true story of black piano virtuoso Dr Don Shirley, who hires tough New York Italian nightclub bouncer Tony Lip (aka Vallelonga) to drive and protect him on a concert tour of the southern states. It’s a deceptively simple premise, the titular Green Book being a guidebook for black travellers to find motels and restaurants that would serve them in the racially divided Deep South. Subtle, provocative, and deeply insightful, this is a thoughtful movie for grown-ups. Part Odd Couple, part road movie, this is one of the finest pictures to come out of the US in recent years.
Essentially a two-hander with outstanding performances from Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip and Mahershala Ali as pianist Dr Don Shirley, the picture is also blessed with an excellent supporting cast: the delightful Linda Cardellini (The Founder, Scooby Doo) as Tony’s wife Delores, Dimiter Marinov (who really does play the cello), and Sebastian Maniscalo et al magnify the nuances of a powerfully understated screenplay into a mesmerising exploration of race and identity.
The screenplay was co-written by the real Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga – who also appears in the film, as do several other members of the Vallelonga clan. Meticulous direction by veteran Peter Farrely (Dumb & Dumber, There’s Something About Mary) brings masterful understatement to the narrative while production legends George Lucas (Dreamworks) and Steven Spielberg (Amblin Partners), lend serious cred to its pedigree.
The other great element to this film is music – from Chopin to early sixties Motown to delta blues, the soundtrack is brilliant. While there are always problems with technical expertise when an actor plays a great musician, the application of invisible computer graphics allows the virtuoso hands of musical director Kris Bowers’s stand-in to effortlessly play the piano for Mahershala Ali.
Green Book cost $23 million and has already pulled $109 million at the global box office and has won a Best Picture award at the Golden Globes and has been nominated for five Oscars.
Green Book will stay with you for days, and warrants a second viewing. It reminds us that great American artists still exist and US culture is not entirely morally corrupt. Short on schmalz, gratuitous sex and violence, but big on excellent performance and subtle humour, there is nothing not to like about this feelgood movie, and plenty to write home about. Go see it.