Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: Mo' Better Blues (1990)

Mo' Better Blues (1990) 
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Spike Lee.
Starring: Denzel Washington (Bleek Gilliam), Spike Lee (Giant), Wesley Snipes (Shadow Henderson), Joie Lee (Indigo Downes), Cynda Williams (Clarke Bentancourt), Giancarlo Esposito (Left Hand Lacey), Bill Nunn (Bottom Hammer), Jeff "Tain" Watts (Rhythm Jones), Dick Anthony Williams (Big Stop Williams), Abbey Lincoln (Lillian Gilliam), John Turturro (Moe Flatbush), Nicholas Turturro (Josh Flatbush), Robin Harris (Butterbean Jones), Samuel L. Jackson (Madlock).
Coming so close on the heels of a masterpiece like Do the Right Thing, it’s not surprising that Mo’ Better Blues was seen as somewhat a disappointment in comparison. It isn’t a masterpiece like Do the Right Thing was – it is a less ambitious movie about a young trumpet player on the verge of a breakout success – and how that affects him, and everyone else in the movie. In a way, Lee seems to be making a movie about someone like himself – a young artist, who has to navigate the world of friends, family, girlfriends, hanger-on’s and money men who all want a piece of him – and the toll that takes. The film doesn’t entirely work – the last act in particular is more than a little bit of a mess – but when the film does work, it’s quite good.
The contemporary film stars Denzel Washington, in his first role for Lee, as Bleek Gilliam – who we first meet as a child, whose mother will not let him out to play with his “hoodlum friends” until he’s done his trumpet lessons. Flash forward 20 years or so, and Bleek  is the leader of his own jazz quintet – playing to a packed Brooklyn Jazz club run by the Flatbush brothers Moe and Josh (John and Nicholas Turturro). His agent his is his childhood friend giant (Lee himself), a degenerate gambler, who isn’t much of a manager – he cannot even get more money for Bleek, even though he clearly deserves it. One member of his band is Shadow (Wesley Snipes), a young saxophone player who is great, knows it, and has taken to hogging the solos a little longer than anyone else likes. It’s only a matter of time before Shadow breaks out on his own – and they all know that. Bleek is currently juggling two girlfriends – smart, reliable school teacher Indigo (Joie Lee) and wannabe jazz singer Clarke (Cynda Williams). This start coming to a head with all of these storylines, as the various conflicts come together to tear Bleek apart – although most are, of course, of his own doing by his inability to make a decision in his own best interest.
In a way, every character in the movie is looking for some way to exploit Bleek – or at the very least, use him as a stepping stool to get what they really want. They count on his loyalty to them as a reason why he won’t turn his back on them and walk away – even if that is what he should do. The most obvious example is Giant of course – he isn’t much of a manager, he isn’t much of a friend – he uses Bleek as his sole employment and moneymaker, but also depends on him to bail him out of trouble. Giant leans on their long, shared history together to do this – if they hadn’t known each other since childhood, Bleek would have left him behind long ago – but he just cannot do it. As Giant falls deeper in debt to bad people, Bleek is still there by his side – and it costs him dearly. But there are others who are using Bleek as well – Shadow and Clarke both see him as a stepping stone – a way to get ahead, further their career. They’re with him if it will help them – but will drop him if they don’t. Interestingly though, Lee seems to recognize that even in these sorts of relationships – where people use each other – there is still a sort of friendship there. Giant, Shadow and Clarke all do care about Bleek – perhaps just not enough.
I do wish that the character if Indigo, player by Joie Lee, Spike’s sister, was better defined. She is the “safe” choice between the two women in Bleek’s life – and she suffers a little bit from not having the pure charisma of Cynda Williams’ Clarke (speaking of Williams, what happened to her career? She is great here and even better in Carl Franklin’s One False Move from 1992 – but never seemed to get another role as good again). Lee is quite good as Indigo – but Lee’s screenplay never really sees her as anything other than the “safe” choice. A problematic scene near the end of the movie between Bleek and Indigo ends in a way we expect – movies like happy endings – but there’s little reason given from her point-of-view as to why she would have made the decision she did. It hurts the movie that unlike Bleek, Shadow, Clarke and Giant, Indigo is more concept than character.
Even during the rough patches of Mo’ Better Blues though there are two elements that keep it entertaining and engaging. One is Denzel, of course, showing why he’s one of the best in the business. He can coast on his charm alone if he wanted to – but rarely does. Here he makes Bleek driven and somewhat of an asshole – but one we always root for anyway. He’s a tough character to love – but we love him anyway. The other is Lee’s filmmaking, which here is at its most beautiful. His love of jazz comes through throughout the film – letting songs play out at length. The brilliant colors in the film are beautiful, as are the darkened, smoke filled rooms. There is always something of interest to look at – or listen to - in Mo’ Better Blues.
I really don’t think the ending of Mo’ Better Blues works. It almost feels like Lee wrote himself into a corner, and needed to find a way out – and does. He doesn’t quite give into the most egregious clichés he could have – a comeback performance does not go well for instance – but the whole years spanning montage that ends the film – and bookends with the beginning – feels false, precisely because it never does explain how the Bleek we’ve gotten to know over the past two hours becomes the Bleek we see in the last five minutes. It doesn’t really work – even if we want it to. Does Bleek earn the ending Mo’ Better Blues gives him? I don’t know – and the reason I don’t know is because Lee seems to leave that out. And in this case, that hurts the film.

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