Mo' Better Blues (1990) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong sexuality, nudity, language, and violence
Running time: 130 min.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes, Cynda Williams, Joie Lee, Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Nicholas Turturro, Dick Anthony Williams, Samuel L. Jackson, Ruben Blades
Cameos: Branford Marsalis, Bill Lee, Doug E. Doug, Tracy Camilla Johns, Flavor Flav
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Spike Lee
Review published December 8, 2007
Although generally considered one of writer-director Spike Lee's (Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever) weaker efforts, I do have a soft spot for Mo' Better Blues, despite agreeing with much of the criticism. Despite being all over the place from a narrative perspective, it does an effective job at capturing the jazz scene, and also features some sumptuous jazz scoring, done by Spike's father, Bill Lee. Perhaps in no other film does Spike Lee come as close as he does to fellow New York filmmaker Woody Allen territory, casting family and friends in the mix, pulling from real life, and he even gives himself a very "Broadway Danny Rose"-ish part as Giant, the music promoter. However, Allen comparisons should be kept to a minimum, as all of Lee's usual stylish flourishes are there, including the racial commentary, questions on love and fidelity, and his use of music to punctuate the entire mood of the film.
Denzel Washington (Heart Condition, Crimson Tide) plays fictional jazz band leader and trumpeter Bleek Gilliam, who plays the club scene with his five-piece band while enjoying the bachelor's life. Right now, he's in a love triangle between the aspiring singer Clarke (Williams, One False Move) and the more grounded schoolteacher Indigo, and while he likes them both, he doesn't have to choose between them, since his music is his only true love. Bleek has to watch his back a bit, as his saxophonist, Shadow (Snipes, Major League), wants his own chance to shine in the spotlight, and also has his eye on Clarke. Meanwhile, Bleek's manager, Giant, causes additional tensions with his gambling addiction, which threatens not only their friendship, but also his life.
I suppose the big knock against Mo Better Blues is its melodramatic qualities, which explores the ups and downs of one star musician both in his professional and personal life. In this way, it's not terribly dissimilar to many other films that deal with musicians, so it might be more of an homage to old-school films much more so than it is just poor choice of content on Lee's part. I think a more legitimate complaint one could tack on would be that Lee ends up putting in too many superfluous characters and side stories for no other purpose save he probably had ideas that he wanted to express. Lee may have been nostalgic for baseball memorabilia at the time of filming, which might explain the reason why he has so many characters talking about old-time baseball, or showing off their wares in the background. The entire character of Giant, which Lee wrote for himself, gets far too much screen time, and his inability to keep from pissing his life away on gambling serves no purpose, save to find a way for an altercation late in the film that changes everyone's life drastically. Robin Harris, who dies shortly after filming his scenes, is also give an inordinate amount of presence, most likely because Lee wanted to make sure his final time in front of the camera was utilized to its fullest, one would imagine.
Lee's knowledge and passion for the music is evident throughout, growing up the son of a jazz man himself, and it's really in his selection of music that Mo Better Blues that elevates it into a somber and effective piece overall. The buoyancy and sadness of the jazz and blues is illustrative of that found in the lonely lives of the players themselves, who grew up so secluded from their friends in order to learn their instruments that they have no idea how to form close relationships to anyone, including those they are intimately engaged with. It's because of this that Bleek would rather spend his time practicing for his next gig that in getting his groove on with his lady loves, further increasing their disappointment in him, which in turn makes him even more prone to hold them back.
Even if the characters aren't exactly deep, the performances are strong, with the non-musician actors doing a pretty good job of faking it, and even Washington, who isn't really known as a musical performer, showing some skills as an entertainer. Wesley Snipes is perhaps most impressive as Shadow, Bleek's ambitious sax man who dreams a lot bigger than his counterpart in making money, even if it comes at the cost of their art. This angle should come as no surprise to any jazz aficionado, as the art-vs.-commercialism debate in jazz circles has been a heated conflict almost since it started to sell records.
For all of its perceived flaws, I inevitably come away from Lee's film with a sense of appreciation for his work. Even when he isn't quite as focused from a screenwriting standpoint, or injecting needless elements into the overall story, I am still fascinated with the things he brings up, even if it is detrimental to the power of the thematic material as a whole. The story isn't anything novel, but Ernest Dickerson's (Krush Groove, Def by Temptation) camera work is absolutely stunning, and along with the tunes by Bill Lee, Terence Blanchard and Branford Marsalis, Just like any good jazz record, it's not about the lyrics or the meaning behind the tune, but about the feeling. Lee's screenplay could have used some tightening up, but when it comes to capturing a feeling on film, he often does make some beautiful music.
©2007 Vince Leo