How 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' and 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' Maintained Authentic Narratives Through Music

How Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' and 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' Maintained Authentic Narratives Through Music
Courtesy of David Lee/Netflix; Courtesy of Takashi Seida/Paramount Pictures

'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,' 'The United States vs. Billy Holiday'

This season's contenders for the Oscar for best sound — renamed this year to combine sound editing and sound mixing into a single category — include a pair of dramas, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and The United States vs. Billie Holiday, that rely heavily on music but faced their own unique challenges to maintaining the authenticity of the narratives.

Based on August Wilson's play, Netflix's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom follows blues singer Rainey (Viola Davis) during a recording session in Chicago during 1927; it also stars Chadwick Boseman, in his final screen performance, as her band's trumpeter. The songs were recorded in a studio, with Davis singing "Those Dogs of Mine" and the rest of the tracks recorded by vocalist Maxayn Lewis, who was recruited by the film's composer, Branford Marsalis.

Much of the film takes place in the recording studio, and making that feel like the real location was vital for supervising sound editors and rerecording mixers Skip Lievsay and Paul Urmson. Sound design was of particular importance to the story. "One of the first sound design things that [director George C. Wolfe] asked us to do was find the contrast between Ma in the studio and how great she sounded, and then how terrible she sounded on the 78 when it was being recorded," says Urmson. "We had a lot of fun coming up with mechanical sounds for the machines that cut the records and that horrible tinny sound for whenever we cut to the record being made. He wanted it to seem that the technology was stealing her voice and her soul. She was aware of that — that's a theme through the movie, that she doesn't trust them to record her properly."

In Lee Daniels' Billie Holiday biopic, scheduled to drop Feb. 26 on Hulu, Andra Day — the Grammy nominee making her film acting debut as the jazz singer — performed her songs, some recorded in a studio and some on set. "We tried to make each environment as true to where she was performing as possible," says rerecording mixer Josh Berger. "Sometimes she was in a smaller club, and sometimes she was at Carnegie Hall, so we tried to emphasize that with the actual music but also the crowd recordings and the sound effects."

Adds supervising sound editor and mixer Robert Hein: "Early in the movie, the [people in the] clubs would come to hear her, but they'd be talking and yelling up to her a lot. And that changed as the movie went along, so we tried to follow her actual trajectory as an artist." In a scene during which she's pulled off the stage in the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia, the sound team recorded crowd reactions.

Because of the pandemic, some of these recordings were completed via Zoom, with Daniels directing. "Each actor was in their home studio," Hein says. "They were recording on individual microphones. Instead of getting one track for 15 people, we get 15 tracks for 15 people. So when you're building crowds, you're ending up with massive amounts of edited material that you have to mix down."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.