A Real Virtuoso’s Notoriously Private Life Is Finally Explored In ‘Green Book’

by Tatiana Tenreyro
Universal Pictures

Green Book, out Nov. 16, tells an incredible true story of the friendship between Jamaican-American classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his Italian-American driver Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, as they head on tour to the South in the early ‘60s. But before this film, not much was known about Shirley beyond his work. The film leaves viewers wondering how the piano virtuoso's life played out after his time on tour with Vallelonga. So what happened to Don Shirley after their tour?

The accomplished musician continued touring with Vallelonga and released a slew of albums till 1972, when he released his final one, titled The Don Shirley Point of View. But not working on albums didn’t mean he stopped creating new music. The New York Times noted on his obituary that in 1974, Shirley composed “Divertimento for Duke by Don” in honor of jazz icon Duke Ellington.

But Shirley mostly remained in low profile throughout the years after his final album, holding high standards for his performances. In a 1982 interview with The New York Times that's quoted in his obituary, Shirley said a line that's given to Ali's fictionalized version of him, noting that jazz players “smoke while they’re playing, and they’ll put the glass of whisky on the piano, and then they’ll get mad when they’re not respected like Arthur Rubinstein.”

Throughout this career, Shirley strived to be respected, rather than being pigeonholed as a traditional jazz musician. As shown in the film, he had a complex relationship with the genre, choosing to break free from stereotypical genres assigned to African-American musicians at the time.

Besides what is known about his career, there isn’t much out there about Shirley’s life in the past three decades. But though the film focuses on a specific time in his life, it hints at many things the musician wasn’t open about. One of them is his sexual orientation. In Green Book, Shirley discusses his divorce and his lack of family left. But in a poignant scene, it’s revealed that he was beaten up by police for having a sexual encounter with a white man. Shirley never remarried and details about his romantic life have remained private.

Before his death in 2013, Shirley made sure that co-screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, Tony Lip’s son, had the necessary details to accurately tell the stories that had remained private throughout his life.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Nick explained the instructions given to him by Shirley. “It was Dr. Shirley who said to me, 'I want you to do this exactly as your father has told you. But I don't want you to do this until I'm gone.' I don't know what his reasoning was. But that's what he asked me, so I waited. I held on to this for a very long time, made a bunch of terrible little movies for like 10 years,” said the co-screenwriter.

Don Shirley may not have divulged much about his personal life, but now viewers will be able to understand his experiences better, witnessing some of his most secret, painful moments, as well as joyous ones that deeply shaped his life.