In 1962, Tony Lip (played by Viggo Mortensen in the movie), an Italian-American man from the Bronx who worked as a bouncer at New York's Copacabana, took a job driving the acclaimed Jamaican-American musician Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) through the Deep South. This wasn't Lip's usual kind of gig. Previously, Lip had been socializing with the celebrities and characters (and mobsters) of New York at the Copacabana. Lip got a small part in The Godfather after meeting Francis Ford Coppola on the job; he would go on to play a mobster in The Sopranos later in life. But in 1962, a full decade before his acting phase began, Lip signed on to travel with one of the time's most well-respected composers and pianists.
From this trip emerged a lifelong friendship, as Nick Vallelonga, Lip's son and the co-writer of Green Book, recalls. "He was a meticulous, well dressed, well spoken man. And he was so nice to my brother and me. He was very interested in my father's family," Vallelonga said of Shirley in an interview for Green Book.
The movie's name, Green Book, derives from the name of the travel guide that Black motorists used to navigate the treacherous landscape that was the Jim Crow era South. While traveling, a Black traveler would encounter hostile hotels and restaurants, as well as "sundown towns," which banned people of color after nightfall. The Negro Motorist Green Book, founded in 1936, listed locations that were friendly for Black travelers, and provided for a safer experience. The green-covered books were sold at Esso gas stations and sold upwards of 15,000 copies a year. “You literally didn’t dare leave home without it,” Earl Hutchinson Sr. wrote in his memoir A Colored Man’s Journey Through 20th Century Segregated America.
Ostensibly, Lip and Shirley utilized the Green Book on their travels. Shirley's tour through the South had been booked by his management company, Columbia Artists management. He would be visiting a series of whites-only theaters and parlor venues. The tour was risky: Shirley knew he would face discrimination and potential violence, as had other Black performers in the South. Only six years prior to Shirley's tour, Nat King Cole had been assaulted onstage in Birmingham, AL while performing for an all-white audience. As depicted in the trailer, Lip stepped in as Shirley's security as well, when needed.
Green Book is also a portrait of Dr. Shirley himself, a performer and brilliant composer who has been largely left out of the history book. Shirley was born to a well-off family in Pensacola, FL, though his promoters often advertised he was born in Kingston, Jamaica. He began playing piano at the age of 2, and made his professional debut at 18 with the Boston Pops. Though Shirley was a prodigy, his career in classical music was thwarted by his race. As his New York Times obituary notes, impresario Sal Hurok recommended Shirley pursue pop music and jazz, as “American audiences were not willing to accept a ‘colored’ pianist on the concert stage.”
Shirley internalized that advice. He abandoned his classical piano track, and instead fused traditions to create a hybrid genre of his own. According to the Times obituary, Shirley melded European classical music with American music like the blues, jazz, and the Black spiritual. He also veered down esoteric routes, creating works inspired by James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake and the Orpheus myth. In addition, Shirley composed three symphonies, two piano concerti, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, and more.
“He had anticipated he would be a concert pianist from the get-go. But he was forced to make this very long detour, and actually make up his own genre, to essentially find his way back to the concert stage," Michiel Kappeyne van de Coppello, Shirley's friend, told The New York Times.
Shirley lived in an apartment above Carnegie Hall, where he played frequently — but not the symphonies he once studied. Generally, though, Shirley performed in nightclubs, which he hated. “I am not an entertainer," Shirley told the Times in 1982, "But I’m running the risk of being considered an entertainer by going into a nightclub because that’s what they have in there. I don’t want anybody to know me well enough to slap me on the back and say, ‘Hey, baby.’ The Black experience through music, with a sense of dignity, that’s all I have ever tried to do.”
In addition to being a musical genius, Shirley was an academic savant. He had doctorates in psychology, liturgical arts, and music. He spoke eight languages.
Shirley and Lip both died in 2013 after having larger-than-life careers. In Green Book, out November 16, you'll see the start of their friendship.