Marques Green (Que Films) is in good company with Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes because this independent filmmaker understands fully the ‘tune o’ those weary blues’ surveyed in his film short, The Bluest Note (2012). Penned by Oliver Webb, Jr., The Bluest Note is a brooding film that never releases the audience from its descent, even though we are hopeful until the very end. Hope indeed is the bluest note.
Len Xiang is Tony Mann, a once successful R&B / Jazz stylist whose own instrument—his voice–has betrayed him after having carried him through the hallowed halls of fame. The ‘blue notes’ elude him, and with every screech and scrag, Mann elicits from the audience a fervent plea to his vocal chords to serve the artist just one more time. Please? We learn later that a ruthless siren, Niva, has placed us under a spell. Played with uncompromising desire by model Jaynelle Clarke, Niva lures Mann to sing despite the vocal letdown. Mann’s wife, Christine (Stacey Lewis) relentlessly pushes her husband to see that Tony is “not that person anymore”, but she is no match for Niva. We, too, want Christine to stay out of our business!
Lewis inhabits Christine’s hope, taking care to throw into sharp relief the despair over what marriage itself cannot save. Both Tony and Christine yearn for a revival of sorts. Mann craves what he once was in the public spotlight; Christine collects pieces from their marital past with the hope Tony will see the value in a life the two of them created in private before the intrusion of fame. Of her character, Lewis explains,
Tony and Christine genuinely loved each other and were committed to their marriage. I believe, however, it was nearly impossible for her to accept and to understand that she and the life they had before the fame were not enough for him to stop seeking validation from the public. I think Christine’s anger, sadness, and jealousy stemmed from the fact she was no longer Tony’s muse and was not a strong enough deterrent to keep him from self-destructing.
The seduction and taunt of celebrity culture without question have caused Christine’s ‘weary blues’, and Lewis notes, “once celebrity is achieved by someone that person will move heaven and earth to maintain it, even to their own detriment and to the detriment of their loved ones. It’s as if the idea of being regulated back to ‘normal’ is emotionally, mentally, and physically painful.”
We feel the pain. Mann strives for his voice to recognize that they once were a team, and to remember the vibrancy of their performances. He actually could sing again. All he has to do is take better care of his instrument, practice, and schmooze among his fellow artists. After all, people remember him … but only ‘when’. It is an agony born out of loss and desperation, and Green dramatizes without restraint the emotional cost of a gift that has vanished only to return in disrepair:
I think the loss of one’s gift is a very challenging thing and can cause people to react in all sorts of ways. With The Bluest Note our intention was to explore this loss. […] This particular case is extreme, but I do feel that many can relate to losing something that is very important to them.
Xiang, who in real-life performs on trains in New York (called a ‘Buster’), appreciates Green’s exploration of ‘finding your way back’ after disappointment and failure in The Bluest Note. He believes this particular journey receives short shrift by mainstream Hollywood when telling the Black artist’s story:
I am so honored to be a part of this film. Eminem’s 8 Mile, 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Carey’s Glitter and others … they show the rise to the top; Hollywood perpetuates this image of us loving the struggle because we were slaves and this is where we come from. I’m over that! There is so much info and research that goes into our lineage as Black people. Why not the story of somebody who has made it to the top then falls down? What choices do they make?
With piercing heaviness, Xiang bears Mann’s burden of choices as he makes a ‘come back’ but only to a place that has no role for him to play anymore. Personally for Xiang, he is all too aware of an artist’s everyday hustle to ‘make it’ in a highly competitive market and what is necessary to sustain his status once success actually is achieved. His character’s journey, he reveals, touches close to his heart.
Really, there is no character there, that’s all me! The music, the songs, too. Tony’s struggle is a struggle I am going through right now, so it was an honor to be that brutally honest in that film. Artists have to figure out how to continue to be artists if they fall. What are those ways? Right now, I’m pushing my way into an industry that is no longer how it used to be. It used to be you signed with a label, and there it was. Now all of that is out of the door. YOU are your own label; your own brand.
In Green’s project, Xiang seamlessly interfolds his own story but still defers to Tony Mann and all of the identity politics that come with him. The Bluest Note glimpses, through Mann, the transition of an artist’s identity from a ‘you’ that embraces you then casts you out into the land of ordinary or onto the strip of normal. Clarke exploits the camera’s power and grants Niva full range to mock Mann with her wisps of possibility. Her skill on the runway, moreover, bolsters her threat not only to Mann’s marriage but to his psychological well-being as well. More striking, cinematographer Giacomo Belletti films Mann’s loss and Niva’s seduction in alluring shades of dark chocolate, maroon, and blue/grey mist; then, he shifts to hues of apricot, rose and ivory to frame Mann’s once sung happiness.
Green rightly acknowledges, with clarity and coherence, the peculiar nature of talent; how it can lose its flexibility and ease of production at any given moment; and, how it will refuse to stand and deliver no matter the force … no matter the prayer. What happens, then, to the ‘you’ left standing? Langston Hughes well may have replied “You move on, man, you move on.” In The Bluest Note, however, where you move can mean a matter of life or death.
The Bluest Note will be screened at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles on August 10; it screened at the The BlackStar Film Festival Saturday, August 3 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and won the Jury Prize for Best Short. In February, The Bluest Note won the Outstanding Independent Short by The Black Reel Awards: Saluting African Americans in Film.
For more information on The Bluest Note, ‘Like’ on Facebook. Visit http://www.quefilms.com for more information on filmmaker Marques Green.
The Bluest Note made its debut at the UrbanWorld Film Festival 2012 in New York.
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