The Black & White Of Touring: ‘Green Book’ Looks Back At Life On The Road

The Green Book
(Patti Perret / Universal Pictures, Participant & DreamWorks)

On The Road Again: Mahershala Ali (left) plays piano virtuoso Dr. Don Shirley, with Viggo Mortensen as Frank Anthony Vallelonga, a.k.a. Tony Lip from “Green Book,” a movie inspired by a 1962 tour across the America.
(With “Green Book” winning three 2019  Academy Awards — for best picture, best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali, and best writing (original screenplay); and a trio of 2019 Golden Globe Awards for best supporting actor, best screenplay and best motion picture comedy or musical — here is a a re-post of Pollstar‘s Dec. 10th cover feature on the film. )

Green Book,” the new feature film directed by Peter Farrelly, which just had its wide release over Thanksgiving, is not your typical road movie à la Crosby and Hope, Martin and Lewis or even Davis and Sarandon. Yes, there is a more serious protagonist and a comic foil, they undertake an arduous journey, there are harrowing moments and laugh-out-loud comic relief and, in the end, transformation. 
But “Green Book” is a music touring road movie, one inspired by the true story of a 1962 trek across the American South by Dr. Don Shirley, a classically trained African-American pianist (played wonderfully by Mahershala Ali), and Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka “Tony Lip,” a streetwise Italian-American from the Bronx who worked as a bouncer at New York City’s famed Copacabana (played equally well by Viggo Mortensen). 
Mahershala Ali (right) plays piano virtuoso Dr. Don Shirley in “Green Book.”
(Patti Perret / Universal Pictures, Participant & DreamWorks)
– Mahershala Ali (right) plays piano virtuoso Dr. Don Shirley in “Green Book.”

In fact, a recommendation by the Copa’s owner Jules Podell would lead to Lip landing the gig as Shirley’s driver, protector and de facto road manager. While the comic relief comes with the clash between this real-life interracial odd couple, the plot centers on the personal and interpersonal evolution the duo undergo while on tour. It’s also a stark reminder of what touring and indeed daily life could be like in the early-1960s for African- Americans, which is perhaps best encapsulated by the film’s title. 

“The Negro Motorist’s Green Book,” from which the film’s title is derived, was a travel guide for African-Americans written by Victor H. Green, a postal worker from Harlem. Its very existence was an implicit nod to the separate and often unequal treatment during that segregated time. 
“Green started compiling this information with help of other postal workers throughout the country and friends and family who would say things like, ‘If you go to Georgia, you can only get gas at this gas station. You better fill up, because there’s not another gas station for miles,’” explained Nick Vallelonga, Tony Lip’s son who co-wrote and co-produced the film. “It was in use for African-American travelers from the mid-30s to the mid-60s mainly for the South, but you had it for the whole country.”
Though the film is centered on the duo’s two-month excursion through the American South, racial discrimination knows no geographical boundaries. In fact, the duo would travel farther afield through 1963 hitting the rest of the country after the southern jaunt portrayed in the film.

“Dr. Shirley and Tony Lip went all over the United States, but we focused on the southern part because that was the part where they first hired him,” says Peter Farrelly, the film’s director better known for his comedic fare with his brother Bob (“Something About Mary,” “Shallow Hal,” “Dumb & Dumber”). “But after that, they went everywhere. In fact, they had some of their biggest problems in Wyoming.” Farrelly points out “The Green Book” also had listings for Los Angeles, Denver and New York.
Tony Lip’s own racial bias was informed by a mid-century New York City that wasn’t exactly a metropolis of racial harmony. In an early scene, Lip is seen working the Copa with Bobby Rydell on stage (the band leader is played by The Shins’ Jon Sortland), with nary an African-American in the house.

“They didn’t allow African-Americans into the Copa, forget about playing there,” said the younger Vallelonga. “Harry Belafonte wanted to go in and they wouldn’t let him so he made it a thing and later headlined there. I believe one of the first African-Americans to sell out the Copa was Sammy Davis, Jr.”

In a scene cut from the film, according to Vallelonga, the Copa’s Podell said after Sammy Davis Jr. sold out the club the owner “didn’t think of black and white. All I thought about was green.’ He made money and they were welcoming African-Americans.” 

Tom Jones
(Courtesy Nick Valleonga)

It’s Not Unusual for Tony Lip (left) to be hanging out with any number of celebrities through his job as a bouncer at New York City’s famed Copacabana. Here pictured with Tom Jones.
Tony Lip also worked in other famed New York City nightclubs, including The Wagon Wheel and Peppermint Lounge during the thriving club scene of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. “Where he worked at the Copa,” his son said, “The Playboy Club was around the block when it was in its heyday. Jilly’s, Frank Sinatra’s guy, had his club around the block. They had The Stork Club. That era of cabarets and nightclubs was really something. When they weren’t working, after hours they’d go to another place. Sinatra would say, ‘I’m going to go sing at this joint. Come after you get out of work, at six in the morning, I’m going to be there.’ For the first five or six years of my life, I don’t ever remember seeing my father when he wasn’t in a tuxedo.”
Dr. Shirley’s background, on the other hand, was not quite as flamboyant and Rat Pack-like, but equally as impressive if not more so. The piano prodigy began performing at age 9 and played Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat” with the Boston Pops by 18. He was fluent in multiple languages, held several degrees and performed for dignitaries, politicians and other elites. No less a figure than legendary pianist and composer Igor Stravinsky called Shirley’s virtuosity “worthy of the Gods.” 
Shirley lived only blocks from the Copacabana but worlds away in a lavish apartment above Carnegie Hall. In one memorable scene, the lauded musician has Robert F. Kennedy on the old school version of speed dial (his address book). 
Ali plays Shirley with a deft balance of grace, poise and erudition resolutely maintained in the face of indignities. It’s in sharp contrast to Mortensen’s more emotive and slovenly portrayal of the senior Vallelonga, who uses his street smarts and bouncer skills to diffuse violent and volatile situations.

There are many despicable scenes portrayed in “The Green Book,” which include Dr. Shirley getting violently attacked in a bar, being denied access to a country club’s segregated bathroom and getting arrested in a Mississippi “sundown town” for simply being out after nightfall. 
These disgraceful situations stand in stark contrast to the well-heeled clientele Dr. Shirley performed for. “He was not on the Chitlin’ Circuit,” said Farrelly referencing the clubs in African-American communities that became something of a touring route for musicians. “He was playing for wealthy white people in the South. That was his audience.” This included shows in country clubs, colleges, mansions and upscale theaters.
The film itself was primarily shot in and around New Orleans in venues that included: Tulane’s McAllister and Dixon Halls, the Roosevelt Hotel, the Orpheum and Saenger Theaters, Ruby’s Roadhouse, the Houghtaling Residence and the Houmas House Plantation. A scene at Carnegie Hall, in fact was filmed at the Saenger with CGI used for the top half of the music temple, according to the director. 
One scene shot at a hotel in New Orleans turned out was once a “colored motel” from back in the day, that would have been listed in “Green Book.” 
“When we got there,” recalls Farrelly, “we got to meet all the neighbors who were watching us film. A lot of them were older, in their eighties and they would tell us this was the place where all the black bands would stay when they played New Orleans. It was like the Temptations, the Four Tops and Ray Charles. They had amazing stories about the bands. They’d play their shows in the city then come back out there to stay and would jam all night. They had a little bar right there and it was like the party after the party. It was fascinating. But none of them could stay in regular white establishments.”

All of which begs the question, why Farrelly, who may be most often associated with the most hilarious and excruciating self-inflicted zipper malfunction ever committed to acetate, would take on such a serious topic?
Don Shirley
– Don Shirley

“Honestly, I’m telling the truth, it felt the same,” Farrelly says. “It didn’t feel that different for me. Writing the script was different, because I was in check and making sure I wasn’t going for jokes. Any humor that comes in this story comes from the characters, it’s just who those guys were.” 

The film’s most transformative moment comes significantly at a Birmingham country club where for the final night of the tour, Dr. Shirley is told he can’t eat dinner in the main dining room.

Together, with his now lifelong friend Tony, they decide for the first time on the tour to walk out of a gig. 
“It was just the final straw for him,” Farrelly explains. “He was going through the South trying to change people’s hearts and minds. 
“He didn’t have to go down there, he could’ve gone to Europe, he could’ve stayed up north and he gotten paid twice or three times as much money. It was a choice he made to educate people.” 
But there’s more to the story. “Birmingham was also the city where five years earlier Nat King Cole was ripped right off the stage and beaten up,” Farrelly says, citing a 1956 incident at Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium when a group of Klan members in the audience attacked the legendary musician.

“They were breaking barriers and ground and that’s what Dr. Shirley wanted to do,” says Nick Vallelonga of the tour. 
“For these African-American artists to go down South and continue to perform and have music break down barriers and spread the word through music that we’re all the same and everyone should be treated the same was very courageous.”