Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

Starring Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Joie Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Dick Anthony Williams, Cynda Williams, Nicholas Turturro

Directed by Spike Lee

Expectations: Moderate. I like jazz, I like Spike Lee.

Hot off of Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee delivered Mo’ Better Blues, a film about a jazz musician trying to juggle his artistic pursuits and his relationships. It’s not nearly as succinct and riveting as the previous film, but as a huge jazz fan, it held my attention fully throughout. I generally shy away from music biopics, and while this isn’t really a biopic, it’s enough of a story about a young musician to be potentially troubled waters for me. Thank God Spike Lee isn’t one for clichés and conventions, though, as Mo’ Better Blues takes a much different route to its conclusion than the plot might initially suggest.

The film opens in a New York neighborhood as the tortured sounds of a kid practicing trumpet scales can be heard coming from an upstairs window. A group of kids yell up to the window for their friend, but Bleek’s mother refuses to allow him to go play with his “hoodlum friends.” Instead, Bleek is to practice his scales and only after his lesson will he be allowed to go outside. Even the soft-spoken words of his father are not enough to sway his strong-willed mother. When Bleek resigns himself to this fact, the film cuts ahead 20 years and we rejoin Bleek (now played by Denzel Washington) playing with his quintet in a jazz club drenched in deep red light.

Spike Lee has a distinct style to his screenplays and Mo’ Better Blues is no different. Instead of a straight, plot-driven film, the film is focused on getting inside the character’s lives and letting the audience live with them for a while. There’s no real narrative drive other than the hope that Bleek will be able to transcend his low-level nightclub gigs and finally receive the artistic credit (and monetary rewards) his stellar playing demands. On the road to this, Bleek is juggling relationships with two women, much like the lead character in Lee’s début film, She’s Gotta Have It, who has three men on her line. This weighs heavy on Bleek’s heart, and even though it’s clearly self-destructive, Bleek is unable to make the moves necessary to go forward with his life.

One aspect that I loved about Mo’ Better Blues was its depiction of black musicians. These weren’t hopped-up heroin fiends, thieving from any and everybody for their next fix, they were all serious musicians looking to get ahead. Their characters were deep, complex and challenging instead of being simple clichés or background “color” to add a little flair to the scenes. This is interesting to consider alongside the Moe and Josh Flatbush characters (played by John & Nicholas Turturro). These two Jewish characters are stereotypes, and highly exaggerated ones at that, but instead of feeling like the wild antisemitism Lee was accused of at the time, it feels like a traditional movie as seen in negative.

The entire film is dripping with incredible jazz, and for a fan of Coltrane, Miles and Mingus, it was pure butter to my ears. I imagine it might be a hard sell to non-fiends, although the music is presented with such love and care that it just might turn a few people onto the great improvisational genre. As usual, the scoring duties are held by Spike’s dad, Bill Lee, and he does a great job. There are key pieces of recorded jazz used as well — including an incredibly well-timed use of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme — but much of the music was composed by Lee and played by the Branford Marsalis Quartet, one of the last few champions of true jazz on the scene. I don’t listen to new jazz really, but these cats definitely know their shit. There’s also quite a few live performances in the film by Bleek’s band, and that too is all dubbed in from the Brandford Marsalis group. I’ve seen a lot of poor musical acting by actors playing musicians, but the dudes here perform so well that you’ll finish the film believing that they’re a real group, and that Wesley Snipes can spit solos of hot fire.

Now this is still early period Spike Lee so you know what that means: incredible cinematography by one of the best that ever played the game, Ernest Dickerson. His collaborations with Spike Lee are easily some of the best looking movies of their time period, and his ability to capture thick, deep colors here is incredible. Where Do the Right Thing was typified by a hot, searing orange that informed nearly every scene, Mo’ Better Blues expands the palette into reds, blues, purples and golds. The opening credit sequence is especially brilliant, evoking those wonderfully iconic Blue Note album covers of the ’50s & ’60s. But the whole film is just gorgeous, and while I’m happy that Dickerson later moved on up to directing (delivering, among others, the classic Surviving the Game), I’ll always be infatuated with his work as a cinematographer.

I do think some of the storytelling is too fractured for the film to be a complete success, but I greatly enjoyed it despite these flaws. Instead of feeling like a tightly structured film that is telling you exactly what to feel at any given moment, it exists simply as it is and it’s up to you to fill in the blanks. It’s like jazz in that way. This can be challenging, but that’s a good thing. Too many movies are specifically concerned with not challenging the audience, so I’m glad that I still have so many unseen Spike Lee movies to work my way through. I was only nine years old when this came out, and I remember the media dubbing Spike Lee as a volatile, angry black filmmaker, but as I see more of his movies I have to wonder if these people actually watched the movies in question. Lee feels confident, self-assured and comfortable confronting issues that Hollywood studios would almost always shy away from, and Mo’ Better Blues, while flawed, is a deep, subtle work worthy of your time.