There are two people you should know. One is Donald Shirley, a Jamaican born classically trained jazz pianist. He began playing when he was two-years-old and first performed in public at the age of three. He held a Doctorate of Music, a Doctorate of Psychology, and a Doctorate in Liturgical Arts. Plus, he spoke eight languages. He passed away in 2013.
The other is Anthony Vallelonga, better known as Tony Lip because of his persuasive talent for talking people into doing things they didn’t necessarily want to do. He was born in Pennsylvania but raised in The Bronx. Among his many jobs, Tony worked as a bouncer at the Copacabana Nightclub in New York. It was there he once met Francis Ford Coppola who gave him a part as a wedding guest in The Godfather. If you watched HBO’s The Sopranos you might remember him as Carmine Lupertazzi. Tony also passed away in 2013. But long before his acting career took off, back when he was a bouncer in 1962, Dr. Donald Shirley hired Tony to be his personal driver and security on a concert tour of the Jim Crow South. The new comedy-drama from director Peter Farrelly – yes, that Peter Farrelly of the Farrelly brothers fame – Green Book tells what happened.
When the film opens, the same nightclub that inspired the Barry Manilow hit is about to close for two months of renovations. Tony (Viggo Mortensen) needs a job, but when offered one by some local hoods, he turns it down. The bouncer needs the money to keep his family afloat but shadowy jobs on the side are not his thing. So when there’s a message that someone called Dr. Shirely (Mahershala Ali) needs a driver, Tony turns up at the given address for an interview. But it’s not what he expected.
The address is Carnegie Hall and the doctor isn’t the man Tony assumed. As he later tells his wife Delores (Linda Cardellini), “He ain’t no doctor. He’s a piano boy.” The musician has planned a tour of the deep south. His driver would have no breaks for up to eight weeks, returning to New York by Christmas Eve. He would be expected not only to drive but to be a bodyguard, to carry the performer’s bags, polish his shoes, and to make sure each venue supply a Steinway on which to play, as per the contract. Plus, each night there’s to be a bottle of Cutty Sark in the hotel or motel room, wherever they stay.
Tony says no. “I ain’t gonna be no one’s butler, and I ain’t gonna shine shoes,” he says. But later, when the doctor ups the salary a little and agrees to Tony’s new terms, as long as he adheres to the rules about the Steinway and the bottle of whiskey, the job is still his. Tony Lip agrees, and the tour begins.
The film’s title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a traveler’s guide published annually at a time when discrimination against American blacks was legally rampant. It listed hotels, motels, and restaurants around the country that would be deemed safe for African-Americans. As Tony explains to his wife, “It’s for traveling while black.” The outcome is that though they’re traveling together, once out of the North East, Tony can sleep where he chooses but the doctor has to stick to the places designated safe for ‘Coloreds Only.’ Even though the musician was aware of how things might be once out of his comfort zone, the culture shock is alarming. And not only for the performer. Tony’s eyes of what life is like upon entering the south are also widened.
In a reversal of Driving Miss Daisy roles, considering how much time they’ll spend together, the two men inevitably get to know each other. Among the many new things learned, the performer helps the driver write expressive letters to his wife, while the driver exposes the performer to the music of Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin via the car radio. The musician doesn’t know the music. “Come on, doc,” states Tony. “These are your people!”
There’s a lot of good humor along the way. When Tony tells the musician that his wife even bought the doctor’s album, Orphans, the one with the cover of the kids sitting around a campfire, Dr. Shirley has to tell the driver that its correct title is Orpheus In the Underworld and that those children are really demons. “Must’ve been naughty kids,” responds Tony.
But as you’d expect, and as the doctor knew, there’s repulsive conflict on the road involving a bar beating in Kentucky, an arrest by racist cops in Tennessee, and the indignity of having to use a decrepit outhouse instead of a regular bathroom at a venue in North Carolina, even though the doctor is the guest of honor. And that’s just for starters. But the man’s ability to play is superb. “He doesn’t play like a colored boy,” Tony writes with admiration in another letter to his wife. “He plays like Liberace, only better.”
When a film states that what you’re about to see is a true story, generally that’s what occurs. When it says it’s based on a true story, you know there’s fiction along the way. Green Book says it’s inspired by a true story. Usually, that’s an indication of a story with an authentic premise but showing events that have little to do with actual occurrences. Yet, even though Green Book is an inspiration and the last fifteen minutes or so in the Orange Bar and Grill and the Christmas Eve reunion feel way too neat in the way a writer would tidy up all narrative loose ends to conclude on a fictional crowd-pleasing, hugs and kisses note, the screenplay was co-written by Tony’s real-life son Nick Vallelonga. Even the family members back at Tony’s house keeping guard on Delores while Tony is away were played by his real-life family members.
The dialog crackles. Almost everything Mortensen’s Tony says is both honest and often extremely funny. His delight of seeing a billboard for Kentucky Fried Chicken while in the actual state is priceless. “When’s that ever gonna happen!” he cheerfully declares. And when he writes to his wife about the spaghetti he’s eating at a diner somewhere in Indiana he describes its taste as ketchup on a plate of Chinese noodles. Plus, the performances of Mortensen and Ali are truly Oscar noteworthy, while Linda Cardellini in the supporting role of Delores is thoroughly engaging.
Though the shame of what the film depicts is all ours, and there’s probable cause to believe there’s a far more serious drama to be made of how ugly things really were for the two, Green Book remains a hugely entertaining crowd-pleaser of that time on the road with two men who went on to become lifelong friends, despite all polarizing cultural differences. And there’s just enough of the oncoming Christmas holiday depicted in the final act to warrant a Thanksgiving and seasonal end of the year release.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 130 Minutes