Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 2/12/07.
Following Spike Lee's widely acclaimed masterpiece Do the Right Thing in 1989, Lee chose to take a break from his socially-conscious films for an exploration in jazz. 1990's Mo' Better Blues is the story of a jazz musician who tries to juggle his professional career and personal life through a series of bad decisions. Written and directed by Spike Lee, the film marked Lee's first collaboration with Denzel Washington who plays the fictional jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam. Also starring Lee and his regulars John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito, Wesley Snipes, Joie Lee, Bill Nunn, and Samuel L. Jackson plus Cynda Williams, Robin Harris, and Charlie Murphy. Mo' Better Blues is a brilliant, passionate love letter to jazz and music in all of its chaos.
It's 1969 as a young Bleek Gilliam (Zakee Howze) is practicing his trumpet in front of his mother Lillian (Abbey Lincoln) while his father (Dick Anthony Williams) insists that he should go out and play with his friends. 20 years later, Bleek is an accomplished trumpet player leading a jazz quintet that included saxophonist Shadow (Wesley Snipes), pianist Left Hand Lacey (Giancarlo Esposito), bassist Bottom Hammer (Bill Nunn), and drummer Rhythm Jones (Jeff "Tain" Watts). Managing Bleek and his band is Bleek's childhood friend Giant (Spike Lee) where the band has always been selling out the same club they've been playing for years. While the group has been successful, tension has started to rise where Shadow wants more money and have more say in the band yet it remains Bleek’s band while his band mates insist that Giant is a bad manager.
While Bleek seems comfortable in his professional life, he also has a loving relationship with his accountant girlfriend Indigo (Joie Lee) while playing catch with his father. Giant meanwhile, continues to gamble with a bookie named Petey (Ruben Blades) that only brings more troubles to his gambling debts. While rehearsing, Bleek gets a visit from his mistress Clarke (Cynda Williams) who wants to become a singer. Still, tension between Bleek and his band over money and management has increased while Bleek and Shadow often have problems with Left Hand's lateness, some of it due to his French girlfriend Jeanne (Linda Hawkins). Giant's financial troubles worsen when he's confronted by the club' financial managers the Flatbush brothers (John and Nicholas Turturro), bouncers Eggy (Charlie Murphy) and Rod (Leonard L. Thomas), and Petey over money.
With Bleek continuing to work on his music, Shadow is making plans to break on his own where he tries to surround himself with Clarke. Then one night at the club where it's packed, Bleek plays a new number to discuss the roots of jazz while another night, he professes his troubling love affairs and passions in a song called Mo' Better Blues. After a night in which both Clarke and Indigo wore the same red dress, Bleek's love affairs finally comes to ahead and takes it toll. After talking to Giant, he begins to wonder about Giant's own gambling problems. Giant's problems finally caught up with him as he is injured by a bookie named Madlock (Samuel L. Jackson). With Bleek and Giant's problems increasing along with the bad decisions, Bleek decides to help Giant out but the tension between him and Shadow have finally come to ahead where Bleek and Giant are forced to confront everything including themselves.
While this film is a wonderful mediation on the love for jazz. It's really a movie about a man whose ego and passion for music and women get the best of him while his inexcusable trust for his manager lead to his own personal downfall. The subplot of Giant and his problems does make an interesting story that contributes to the film’s plot. Although it also makes the film a bit uneven in the stories of these two men. Lee also exposes the really dark world of the music business as well as the world of jazz that shows its evolvement. Particularly in how purists have problems with the idea of mainstream success where there's a brief mention of Kenny G, who is known to be loathed by jazz purists. Lee's script and his observant, stylized direction really gives the film a feeling that is entertaining and paying tribute to the world of jazz and the blues. The film also serves a character study of ego and passion through the character like Bleek Gilliam.
Lee's longtime cinematographer Ernest Dickerson brings a wonderful presentation with his use of colors and light to emphasize the emotions and passion of the music and the character of Bleek. The interior settings, notably the club with shots of red, blue, orange, and green reveal the richness of the atmosphere as it's some of the best cinematography captured on film. Production designer Wynn Thomas and set decorator Ted Glass add to the authenticity to the intimate, wooden-look of the club that Bleek and his band play to the homegrown world of Brooklyn along with the posh-like look of a jazz club near the end of the film. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter adds to the colorful style with the suits that the men wear along with the Giants shirts that Bleek wears in a scene where he plays catch with his father to the different dresses that Cynda Williams and Joie Lee wears. Editor Samuel D. Pollard brings a stylized touch to the editing with jump cuts, perspective shots, and everything to add rhythm to the film. Sound designer Skip Lievsay also brings a nice atmosphere to the film's club sequences with the noise of people and music blaring.
Then there's the music with a wonderful, orchestral score work from Lee's father Bill to add the flair of blues and classical to convey the sense of drama. Longtime composer Terence Blanchard along with Branford Marsalis create some of the jazz compositions performed in the film that rings true to the music while the rest of the soundtrack features a lot of jazz cuts including one famous one from John Coltrane.
The fil's cast is wonderfully assembled with cameos from Bill Lee, Flava Flav in the opening credits, and the late comedian Robin Harris as the club's top comedian. Other noted small performances from Charlie Murphy, Linda Hawkins, Zakee Howze, Leonard L. Thomas, and Abbey Lincoln are memorable while Samuel L. Jackson and Ruben Blades are excellent as the bookies with Jackson also playing the voice of Senor Love Daddy from Do the Right Thing. Lee regular John Turturro and brother Nicholas bring humor as the fast-talking accountants bring some needed humor to the film. Dick Anthony Williams is great as the Bleek's caring father while Bill Nunn and Jeff "Tain" Watts are excellent in their brief roles as the rhythm section of Bleek's band. Cynda Williams is excellent as the seductive, hungry Clarke whose lack of attention leads her to having an affair with another man. Joie Lee is wonderful as the more mature, down-to-earth Indigo who seems like the only woman who can ground and confront Bleek and his ego.
Giancarlo Esposito is great as the suave, artistic Left Hand who always shows up late and acts more different than his band mates playing the Euro-man of the group. Wesley Snipes is great as Bleek's rival saxophonist whose idea of jazz and success serves as the right antagonism for Bleek where Snipes truly stands out in his performance. Spike Lee gives an excellent performance as the socially-awkward, problematic Giant with his charmed behavior and bad habits that makes him a wonderful, memorable character. Lee does great work in bringing some humor to a very flawed character. Finally, there's Denzel in a fantastic performance as Bleek Gilliam. Denzel proves his versatility as a performer doing a bit of rapping and singing while giving Bleek a full-on complexity to a man that's flawed by his ego and his passion for music. It's a tour-de-force performance from Denzel Washington.
While Mo' Better Blues might not be a masterpiece like Do The Right Thing or Malcolm X, it’s still one of Spike Lee's finer films. Fans of jazz music will appreciate the touch and authenticity that Lee adds to the film while it also marks as a great collaboration between him and Denzel Washington. The film is also entertaining with style along with some substance. It also has a lot of memorable scenes and performances from its cast. In the end, for anyone wanting to watch something cool with a bit of jazz and lots of Denzel, watch Mo' Better Blues.
Spike Lee Films: (She's Gotta Have It) - (School Daze) - Do the Right Thing - Jungle Fever - (Malcolm X) - Crooklyn - (Clockers) - (Girl 6) - (Get on the Bus) - 4 Little Girls - (He Got Game) - Freak - Summer of Sam - (The Original Kings of Comedy) - (Bamboozled) - (A Huey P. Newton Story) - 25th Hour - (Jim Brown: All-American) - (She Hate Me) - (Inside Man) - (When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts) - (Miracle at St. Anna) - (Kobe Doin' Work) - (Passing Strange) - (If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise) - (Red Hook Summer) - Bad 25 - Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth - (Oldboy (2013 film)) - (Da Blood of Jesus) - (Chi Raq) - Michael Jackson's Journey from Motown to Off the Wall