Mo’ Better Blues

Spike Lee’s fourth film is a celebration of music and color. It features a stellar performance from Denzel Washington, thrilling music, and an exciting use of color.

Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing premiered at Cannes in 1989. It was met with massive controversy. People believed it would cause race riots and violence. People objected to the depictions of Italians, African Americans, and police in the film. After the storm subsided, Lee returned with a film that couldn’t be more different.

Bill Lee is a well known jazz musician. He plays a number of instruments for a myriad of artists. He’s also an accomplished composer. He is also the father of Spike Lee. Bill Lee instilled one his son a love of music that can be seen on display in all of his films. In each of his previous films there is at least one extended musical number. School Daze itself is a musical. Mo’ Better Blues is a fascinating look at one mans relationship with music and how he sacrifices all else for his music.

The film follows Bleek Gilliam, a jazz trumpeter who knows exactly what he wants musically and not a thing about what he wants for the rest of his life. The film introduced Bleek as a child being forced to practice his trumpet by his mother. She makes young Bleek send his friends away so he can continue practicing. It’s a moment that comes to define Bleek’s life.

Bleek as an adult is played by Denzel Washington. This is the first of four collaborations between Washington and Lee. Here Washington is magnetic. He carries such intensity of thought in his eyes. His every gesture is executed for maximum impact. He is intense and focused on his music and distracted and distant when dealing with people. It’s an amazing performance. Watch the movie for the lesson in acting Washington gives.

Bleek has a good friend ironically named Giant, played by Spike Lee. He’s a gambler who bets too much on every game, but believes he’ll win this time much like every gambler. What’s interesting here is that Giant is never shown winning. He makes several bets, but he always comes out the loser. Movies tend to glorify anything they depict, and when an audience sees someone winning a bet, it looks like the coolest most thrilling thing that can happen. Winning tends to overshadow the losses in movies, so when movies try to sermonize on the dangers of gambling they still inadvertently make gambling look really cool. Lee sidesteps that here by showing only the danger and downside. It’s a really smart decision that pays off in a gut wrenching later scene.

Bleek plays in a club with a backing band that has plenty of disagreements chief among them how much they’re getting paid. These backstage scenes have the thrill of improvised moments. They just soar as these actors are able to play off each other and play the energy of the moment. The scenes rise and fall like a roller coaster. It’s a ton of fun to be in the room with these guys.

The use of color is fascinating here. Lee uses colored lights and colored costumes in a deeply attracted fashion to emphasize certain moments and isolate characters from the background. Not only does this use of color create some stunning compositions, but it also highlights the most important dramatic moments of the film. It’s a beautiful movie to look at.

Bleek’s main tension in the film is between his music and the two women he’s with. We are first introduced to Indigo Downes, plate by Joie Lee, Spike’s sister. She and Bleek share a really nice moment together before she leaves. Then we meet Clarke Bentancourt, played by Cynda Williams. She interrupts his playing for a sex scene. It’s another classic Spike Lee sex scene. It’s strange and oddly shot, but also fascinating. It’s nowhere near as weird and cringe inducing as the sex scene in School Daze, but it is odd. Both actresses rise above what could be considered underwritten roles. They give their characters depth and independence that is lacking on the page.

The film is unlike any of his other films in that it primarily focuses on one character and his journey rather than a large group of people or a community. It’s singular focus without sacrificing the side characters. Spike Lee populates his film with interesting and varied personalities like few filmmakers do.

The musical numbers in the movie are actually really exciting to watch. I worried they’d be full. Just watching people playing instruments isn’t exactly riveting filmmaking. However the way Lee shoots and edits these scenes gives them a life that captivated me throughout.

Now, with all that going for it, does the movie work as a whole? Almost. The movie sags in the middle as plot threads are set up that will lead to a climactic moment. Once that incredibly powerful moment takes place the movie sort of rushes to its conclusion obscuring a what could have been a riveting story in the process. I guess my main complaint is that I wanted more movie.

This one isn’t as important as his other films, but it is smoother and more polished. The filmmaking here is a little more streamlined and fluid not so rough around the edges. Watching it gives the sense that here, Spike Lee is defining his style.

I definitely recommend it and not just to people studying Spike Lee. It’s a really entertaining and well made movie with its fair share of problems, but more than enough positives to make up for it.

It’s my cup of tea. B+

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