The highly-anticipated Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is now streaming on Netflix, and it's a must-watch for anyone who loves music and appreciates a good biopic. Set in the '20s, Ma Rainey is about the titular jazz singer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey and her battle between her white management and eager trumpeter, Levee (Chadwick Boseman) who wants to change up her sound and elevate his career. Viola Davis stars as Ma Rainey, embodying the legend's ability to entrance an entire room with her powerful voice.
Since the entire movie is based on Ma Rainey's singing, and since it really does sound like Viola sings in Ma Rainey, you might be wondering if the actress really is singing in real life. The answer? Viola got a lot of help.
Does Viola Davis sing in 'Ma Rainey'?
Viola Davis doesn't actually sing in Ma Rainey except for when she breaks out into song while seductively agreeing to buy her girlfriend new shoes. Whisper-singing in Taylour Paige's ear (she plays Dussie Mae) Viola really does sing a few lines of "These Dogs of Mine." Otherwise, it's actually Maxayn Lewis who supplies her vocal cords to Ma Rainey.
Maxayn Lewis, who was hired by director George C Wolfe and recruited by Branford Marsalis (who oversaw the film's score), has an impressive musical background. She sang as a member of the Ikettes in the Ike & Tina Turner Revue in the '60s, started her own band with her husband in the '70s called Maxayn, and has sung with legends like Donna Summer, Ray Charles, and Celine Dion. She's even worked with Duran Duran and Britney Spears.
“Mr. Marsalis had the wisdom to bring the music to life in the most authentic way possible, and he kept us all on track with his incredible humor, knowledge and kindness. It is a stunningly beautiful film. As I was singing I found myself being pulled into the story," Maxayn stated in her press notes.
The rest of the cast is also mimicking playing the instruments, but you would never know if you watch the film. Chadwick, being the committed and talented actor he was (RIP), asked to have the fingerings for the cornet written down so he could actually "play" the trumpet as though he really were playing it in real life.
Per Digital Spy, "Before we began filming, Chadwick reached out to ask me to write the fingerings for the cornet on a piece of music, so he could learn to mimic playing authentically. By what I have seen in other films, most actors are only interested in looking the part of a musician, not actually trying to make the playing look convincing," Branford shared.
Viola Davis explained to USA Today how important the role was to her, saying, "Ma’s power comes from where my mom's power comes from, where my mother-in-law's power came from. And that is either we have the power, or we die. The only thing Ma had in her life – the only thing that she lived for that made her worthy – was her voice.” So, while Viola didn't actually sing in the movie, every fiber of her being transformed into the iconic singer.