Mo’Better Blues

United States, 1990

Directed by Spike Lee

With Denzel Washington (Bleek Gilliam), Spike Lee (Giant), Wesley Snipes (Shadow Henderson), Joie Lee (Indigo Downes), Cynda Williams (Clarke Betancourt)

The prologue describes a kid who is clearly reluctant to take his lesson in trumpet playing, especially as his neighborhood friends hail him to go with them to play a baseball game. He complains to his hectoring mother he does not like the instrument. But he would then tell his pals off because they show disrespect and ignore he needs to take a lesson. A cut and then the film rushes forward from 1969 to 1990 to show the grown-up kid, an attractive and tall young man, leading with his trumpet a jazz band in a swanky and successful New York nightclub.

Bleek Gilliam is an ambiguous and contradictory character. He may not have wanted to be a trumpeter but his life is fully defined by his talent. He may be the leader of a group but he struggles to assert his authority, which is relentlessly challenged by his gifted and ambitious sax player Shadow Henderson. He may have the best feelings for his manager and best friend Giant but it is hard to overlook the funny guy’s flaws. He may be in love with Indigo Downes, a young intellectual often spending nights in his apartment, but still sleeps with Clarke Betancourt, a young artist dreaming to sing in jazz clubs.

Looking for the right note – and for some order in his life: Denzel Washington

This riff on a romcom and a musical nonchalantly chronicles how Bleek increasingly loses control over his life. Unwilling to choose between Indigo and Clarke, he is busted by the confusion. In this cast highly fashion-conscious, with an obvious preference for gaudy and sophisticated clothes and trinkets (Giant’s choice of neckties is as flabbergasting as unforgettable), it is a funny twist that the final unraveling comes when both gals sit in the nightclub where their lover works in the same red, skimpy dress. The next move is less pleasant but even more clever in visual style, as both women talk him off after he mistakenly calls each of them by the other’s name while making love. The blank face of Bleek, his stare switching from left to right, alternates with the angry faces of the women, one after the other. This a dazzling work of comic editing that highlights the absurd situation where Bleek has boxed himself in and the hopeless of the women which must share the same inability to get a commitment and even a modicum of respect.

Another inability to choose upsets Bleek’s life. Everyone in his band, and elsewhere, is aware Giant is an inefficient manager. Moreover the guy is a gambling-addict, piling ever-growing amounts of debts as his maniacal wagers on baseball teams are on the losing side. But Bleek hesitates to fire him and even sides with him as Giant tries to curb the talent of the band’s sax player, Shadow Henderson. In fact, Bleek proves unable to review his way of conducting the band, his bold talent to compose being matched by his reluctance to take into account others’ own talent – which hurts the overambitious sax as well as Clarke.

This is his friendship with Giant that brings the final disaster to his life. At this point Indigo and Clarke have cut their ties with him, Shadow has left the band after a brawl and the nightclub’s managers have refused to renegotiate the contract. Bleek has been forced to fire Giant but when his diminutive friend gets badly battered by thugs assigned to recollect the dough he owes, he rushes to help him – and gets injured. It takes a lot of time and suffering to recover fully and it turns out that he would be unable to play the trumpet again. But the film does not refuse him a happy ending: he manages to reconcile with Indigo and they have a child – a brisk series of vignettes that cleverly brings the audience back to the inaugural scene; only this time Bleek is the father, and a good one at that.

The best excuse he can have for his past behaviors is his need for music. Spike Lee shoots amazing, original pictures to illustrate his dedication for jazz and the talent he displays for composition and playing, from the detailed description of Bleek cleaning his trumpet to the terrific moment when he composes a tune out of the blue, his concentration drowning out the words spoken by Clarke, the film becoming an impressive moment of silent creation – and then there are the performances on stage, dazzling moments of music that are shot in a gorgeous photography, delicately attuned to the nightclub’s atmosphere and that give the film a peculiar, exciting vibe.

“Mo’Better Blues” is first and foremost a pleasantly light-hearted affair, featuring relaxed acting, farcical characters (like the nightclub’s owners or the stand-up comedian they have hired) and a powerful performance by Lee as Giant, a funnily pitiful and outrageous character whose hapless and shocking behaviors are made disarming by his optimistic stubbornness to carry on. But it is also a really romantic film which shots in a remarkably sensual and blunt way sex as the most spontaneous way of being together for characters striving to love each other, a hard task that Bleek eventually pulls off, enabling him to prevail over hardship and his own failings. This character is lucky for another reason: he is perfectly played by a truly inspired, hard-working actor; Denzel Washington’s performance is just awesome.

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