Mo' Better Blues (1990)
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This, simply, is one of my favorite Lee films. Thank God someone finally made a jazz film for the late 20th century, jazz had not received a proper modern makeover since 1961's "Paris Blues." Lee creates a wonderful, intimate world set off by moody lighting in shades of red, yellow and blue. His camera and editing - which was spontaneous and lively in "Do The Right Thing" - is slow and deliberate here, carefully punctuated in all the right places. This film marked the debut of some of Lee's trademark camera moves, including the 'gliding sidewalk' dolly and his slow-spin-upward pans.
Like his previous films, Lee is adept and balancing out scenes between comedy and drama. A lot of the 'band' scenes are engagingly funny, mostly guy talk with a spin of that "cool daddy jazz vibe" added. Lee is also skillful at making Bleek the antagonist of the film without rendering him completely unlikable. The "Love Supreme" montage ending seemed to stretch the film for longer than some would have liked, but I feel it was justified in order to illustrate the beauty and necessity of Bleek's redemption. Lee was also smart to reduce screen time given to the film's true protagonist, saxophonist Shadow Henderson (rendered with cool, suave sophistication by Wesley Snipes), in order to keep the audience focused on Bleek. You will also get a delicious sampling of great jazz in this film if you're a novice to such. Aside from the concert numbers written and performed by Branford Marsalis and the dreamy jazz score by Lee's father, Bill, there are great pieces by John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. A cool, sexy film.
However, I think part of the reason for the lower ratings is the the poor camera effects. Lee focuses in on characters at times, as though they are standing and talking to a camera by themselves in some sterile room, such that it actually cheapens the film. There is a real lack of realism to this technique - it reminds me of 1960's style TV shows like Batman. It gives a feel that they ran out of money and when they had to go back and re-shoot the scene, they did so on the cheap. A minority may find this unique or appealing, but no great movie or director will use this technique. The filming with multiple characters in the shot is generally very good. But, the movie could have been better without these flaws.
The writing at times is exceptional. There are great lines, as well as very entertaining dialogue. The scenes between Denzel and Snipes are exude an extraordinary power and they offer an exceptional dynamic to the movie as a whole. The female characters are also very compelling. "Clark" (Cynda Williams) is extraordinarily attractive and the movement of the character through the course of the movie is well done.
It is difficult not to be captivated by this film. The positive cultural dynamic it captures is one that Americans can only hope to be present. Yet, one gets the feeling that reality is closer to the darker elements the movie exposes. Yet, there is ultimately a very positive message of love, responsibility.
"Do the Right Thing" also coincided with the year Washington won his first Oscar for his performance as the tormented Afro-American soldier questioning the value of his engagement with the Yankees. As Bleek, Washington not only shows a more light-hearted facet of his acting range, but also proves a unique ability to portray men driven by anger, selfishness but with enough pride and confidence to win our respect. His characters might be flawed but we understand them and the emotional pay-off is that they ultimately try to change, for the best, closing some fascinating characters' arcs, among which Bleek isn't an exception.
Bleek is interesting because he crystallizes the curse of making constantly bad choices, and by 'bad' I mean 'tragic', even more because only the scope of a life highlight them. And "Mo' Better Blues" spans thirty years of Bleek's life so we have glimpses on the devastating effects of the most benign choices. It opens in 1969 when Bleek's friends urge him to come play softball, but it is trumpet which he must play, under his mother's tyrannic supervision. His father coerces her to let the boy be a boy, but he's too busy watching TV to be listened to. The kids finally leave, calling Bleek a 'sissy', Bleek resumes playing with much reluctance.
The immediate ellipse endorses the mother's authoritarian education; Bleek became a handsome trumpet player with a way with women, leader of a quintet featuring Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) the saxophone player, Bill Nunn in the bass and Giancarlo Esposito in the piano. What a great delight to watch all these actors joined interacting in the artist's room. The list would be incomplete without Spike Lee who plays Giant, an ironic name for the vertically challenged manager of the band. Anyway, life seems to smile to Bleek, but all the film's stylish shots can't hide behind the shadowy and smoothly designed atmosphere, the presages of an imminent downfall.
"Mo' Better Blues" chronicles a series of bad choices made by a man not by lack of luck or intelligence, but because his ego and certitudes prevent him from realizing the harm he causes to his entourage, and ultimately, to himself. Bleek is too blinded by his leadership to understand that it might not last, especially with such a promising sax player, who proves his value every night through outstanding solos. He's too caught up by his friendship with Giant he lets him ruin the band's career. Giant is a gambler who makes the wrong bets, who fails to convince the club owners Moe and Josh Flatbush (John and Nicholas Turturro) to renegotiate the contract, and much more, who gets no respect because of his diminutive size. Not stupid or unlucky, but Bleek's tragedy is that his best friend is. Spike Lee perfectly plays Giant, the lovable loser.
But Bleek is also the architect of his own demise, notably on the love department. He dates two women who couldn't have been more opposite: Cynda Williams as Clarke Bettencourt, a glamorous, light-skinned artist whose dream is to be Bleek's Muse and sing for him but she can't break the iced gate of his own ego forcing Bleek to turn the subject into a "Mo'Better" moment, a classy euphemism for sex. But it is interrupted when she accidentally bites Bleek's very tool of work: his lip, confirming the impossible junction of work and passion. But Clarke's pleas find echoes in Shadow and her character magnificently blooms when she sings a sweet ballad for Shadow's quartet (guess who misses?) and proves Bleek wrong. But his heart belongs to Indigo (Joie Lee), the less glamorous but more dedicated woman who patiently endures his rejections.
We know they're meant for each other, but Bleek is still obsessed with Clarke's body, the highest in the hierarchy of beauty standards in the black community. Realistically, it's only when Bleek's career is over that he seeks Indigo's help, and she knows. Paying the highest price of being Giant's friend, his lip is permanently hurt by two loan sharks. By the way, the film tactfully avoids the ridiculous triumphant comeback cliché invited to join the band by Shadow, Bleek can't play correctly and leaves the stage forever, the heart full of pain and humiliation. All he's got left is Indigo, and she only accepts after he begs her to ''save his life', which means that he finally triumphed over his own ego.
Part choice, part luck, the film subtly parallels life with jazz music, which is one third- dedication, one third-inspiration and one-third improvisation, Bleek was too dedicated to himself to see how listening to the others could help him. I could relate to Bleek for I had my share of bad choices, for I'm still trusting my best friend to whom I owe many of the biggest problems I have (and he's still a friend) for even with my future wife, I kept lusting about other more voluptuous women, while I still know that she was the one. I remember an old man who hardly knew me but said "there's something erroneous" about me. Now, I knew what he meant and this is something I can also say about Bleek, hoping that, like him, my life will change positively.
And the ending says it all when the exact opening scene is recreated, only this time, Bleek lets his son go play with his friend, probably realizing that one simple choice can have one hell of an effect on one's life, and not repeating the same mistakes is already a way to succeed.
I enjoyed the score and the jazz pieces included in this film (after all, Bleek played the trumpet). I really liked the cinematography in this film because the film showed the beauty of New York City - the brownstones, the Manhattan skyline (a brief glimpse), the Brooklyn Bridge, etc.
Mo' Better Blues is a good, steady, effective drama, a portrait of a complex and overwrought musician and the indecision and jealousy that gradually eat away at his life, but it lacks the passion and brazen provocative nature of nearly all of Spike Lee's other films.
The cast, once again, is brilliant. Denzel is very very very authentic, faithful, graphic, and lifelike. My brother is a jazz musician and I've met several of his fellow musicians. I'm seasoned when it comes to jazz musicians. Take my word for it, Denzel's performance is entirely true. Snipes is brilliantly, swaggeringly audacious. Joie Lee comprehensively draws our sympathy towards her sensitive, self-conscious character and away from the elegant and subtly compelling Cynda Williams. Spike Lee himself is one of the most compelling characters. Samuel L. Jackson entertains in one of his millions and billions of early bit roles.
If I were to say, "I'm in the mood for a Spike Lee joint," this would not be one of the first films I pick, but it's different and enthralling. I mean, it's directed by Spike Lee, so how can it not be?
Denzel Washington plays Bleek Gilliam, a NYC trumpet player who fronts his own jazz quintet to sell-out crowds at a local club. He's managed by Giant (played by Lee), an irresponsible compulsive gambler who is only Bleek's manager because they're childhood friends. Meanwhile, Bleek is seeing two different women (played by Joie Lee [Spike's real-life sister] and Cynda Williams), and is torn between his passion for music and his inability to control his relationships.
Things go haywire when Bleek's sax player, Shadow (Wesley Snipes), vies for the affections of one of Bleek's women, promising her fortune and fame as a jazz singer since Bleek only cares about himself anyway.
Giant's gambling problems, Bleek's convictions as a "serious" musician, and the tightrope one walks between love and professional dedication are themes all visited in this exciting, vibrant film.
Besides the wonderful performances (by Washington, Snipes, and the always-underrated Lee standby Giancarlo Esposito, among others), Ernest Dicekrson's cinematography is stunning, and the music -- performed in real life by Branford Marsalis, who has a cameo in the film -- is dazzling. The way the "band" mimes the performances is thoroughlly convincing (although it must be noted that Bleek's drummer is played by Jeff "Tain" Watts, a real jazz drummer who actually performs on the tracks themselves).
If you're a jazz lover and a lover of Spike Lee's movies, check this out -- you'll be glad you did.
Bleek's practice paid off. He is a talented trumpeter as an adult with a talented if only moderately successful band. The music in this movie is wonderful, and the acting quite good (Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes probably don't know how to play their instruments as wonderfully as what we could hear, but they faked it well). As usual, Spike Lee appears in the film. In this case he is the band's manager, who has a gambling problem. I liked Dick Anthony Williams as Bleek's father, and I liked Samuel L. Jackson at first, playing one of the bad guys. I was disappointed when he left so quickly, but when he came back he was so nasty I wished he hadn't come back at all.
Other than the music, I didn't see much reason to feel entertained by this film. I'm not sure what this means, but the only two white men with lines came across as cartoon characters, in stark contrast to the well-played blacks. And there were two white women with lines, one a waitress who seemed intelligent enough based on her one or two lines, and the other a mixed-race French woman (who was supposed to be educated but didn't seem that way to me) the band members didn't seem to approve of their colleague dating. I don't mind, though, when Spike Lee addresses racism in his movies because he makes valid points.
My purpose in watching a Spike Lee movie is to be educated rather than entertained. I think this film achieved that, but not as well as some others.
Interestingly, the movie ends almost exactly the way it started, except Bleek is an adult whose son is practicing the trumpet, and this time the boy gets to go out and play with his friends. Nice touch.
Bleek Gilliam (Denzell Washington) is a happenin' jazz trumpeter that fronts a quintet packing them in at Below the Underdog. His problems include an incompetent manager, a stage hogging sax player and two girlfriends that he's playing musical mattress with. The real love of his life though is his trumpet and his music. The band's manager, Giant, has a dangerous gambling problem and proves to be an ineffective negotiator with greedy club owners and would be best jettisoned but Bleek remains loyal for as long as possible. It will prove to his undoing as an artist but ironically contribute to his growth as a man.
As Bleek, Denzell Washington is all wrong as the ambitious trumpeter with a babe on each arm. He's too sweet a guy to be so self centered about his art, dispensing patience and love to those close to him with a low key remoteness. He simply lacks the fire. Wesley Snipes who plays Henderson the sax player would have been far more suited for the role but even he would have to mouth the flaccid throw away scribblings of Lee's torpid dialogue. As Giant, Lee hits the trifecta with an abysmal performance to match his writing and direction. Loosely attempting to mirror the grubby but sympathetic Ratso Rizzo to Bleek's Joe Buck he adopts a limp and even the "I'm walkin' here" moment from Midnight Cowboy. In this case you wish the taxi would run him over and be done with it.
Lee's script is all tepid argument, heavy handed ribbing and veiled insult with some requisite clumsy editorializing that Lee has to inject to remain down. The scenes between the band members backstage and in rehearsal lack spark and are only surpassed in dreariness by the Bleek, Giant conversations that have an ad lib look and go in circles. Completing this travesty is Lee's pretentious visual style. Tracking shots, zooms and pans are wasted and without significance to scenes. They just wander.
Blues is Lee's love letter to jazz (made implicit by the mountains of memorabilia plastered all over the sets) and it's all sentimental clap trap that lacks passion and verve. Jazz on film is better served by Tavernier's "Round Midnight" and Eastwood's "Bird" which get below the surface, reveal more sides of the form, the pain behind it in addition to offering infinitely superior lead performances by Forrest Whitaker and the real deal Dexter Gordon. This Spike Lee Joint doesn't even offer a mild buzz. It's some pretty bad homegrown.
Round-Up: I'm not a total Spike Lee hater, because I did enjoy Inside Man, 25th Hour, The Original Kings Of Comedy, Summer of Sam and Clockers but the rest of his projects, really wasn't my cup of tea. Do the Right Thing was a big deal when it was released in 1989, mainly because of it's pro-black message and the great soundtrack, which went down well in the urban market but he seemed to get a bit big headed after releasing Jungle Fever, Malcolm X and Crooklyn. He also had a few scraps with fellow directors in the media, and his movies started to take less money at the box office, mainly because people was getting a bit fed up with the same theme, so after releasing Girl 6 and He Got Game, he decided to make a movie about true events called Summer Of Sam. 25th Hour was also a change of direction for Spike Lee, and he started to turn his career to TV for a while. He still was making controversial comments in the media, and after his poor attempt of a remake of Oldboy in 2013, which lost the studio $25million, he has been out of the limelight for some time. Personally, I think that he is his worse enemy, like Quentin Taratino and Mel Gibson, because they are known for the wrong reasons. They are all talented directors but there mouth seems to get them in trouble. Anyway, it's a watchable movie but not a classic.
Budget: $10million Worldwide Gross: $16million
I recommend this movie to people who are into their music/romance/dramas, starring Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Joie Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Cynda Williams, Nicholas Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson, Charlie Murphy and Doug E. Doug. 4/10
Spike Lee shows why he is revered as a writer director, with beautiful dynamic shots, intercut with smooth jazz. It is a charming presentation. Also the dialogue is interesting and feels natural and spontaneous. The combination of strong writing and acting makes for interesting conversations.
The things I found frustrating was the lack of a focused or interesting story. Also Spike Lee's performance was very weak compared to Denzel's and he should have stayed out of the movie. He actually took a lot of the attention from the other characters and tried to make the movie about himself.
For anyone out there that has seen this film, and perhaps stopped watching anything directed by Spike Lee afterwards due to this film, I suggest you give him a second chance. Don't get me wrong, I see exactly where you are coming from with this film and why you would want to put this behind you, but Lee does grow up. His work becomes more of his own, and you can see the transformation from a desire to make money to just wanting to make good films. It took me awhile to watch The 25th Hour, but when I did, it was sheer brilliance. Perhaps it was the actors, perhaps the story, but Lee crafted an amazing film out of one man's journey into the unknown. I guess that is what I was hoping Mo' Better Blues would turn out to be. This really dark journey into the life of a man that really never grew up, but instead all I got was Denzel being Denzel. He really is one of the most versatile actors of this generation, and I do consider him the Sydney Poitier of cinema, but this was not the film to showcase his talent.
Another issue that I had with this film was the use of Spike's sister playing one of the love interests. I don't know about you, and your family, but I do not think that I could have filmed a sex scene with my sister. I don't care who the actor is or how much money I am getting paid, I would never do it. It is just something that I never wish to see, but apparently that is different for Spike. He went ahead and showed the full nude image of his sister without any remorse. It was sad and it even made me blush. Also, I need somebody to answer me this. What was Flavor Flav doing introducing this film? So, I am sitting there on my couch, ready to start the film, when suddenly there is a voice from the past spelling out the studio that made this film, then he acknowledges himself. That did not build for a strong remaining of the story. Again, I felt that Lee was going for money on this film instead of actual talent. Perhaps that is how he could afford both Denzel and Wesley in the same movie without any explosions.
There were two great scenes in this film that made it worth watching through to the end. Don't get me wrong, this was a very bad movie, but there is always a diamond in every alleyway. The scene when Bleek accidentally forgets which woman he is with was mesmerizing. He continually went back and forth, weaving truth to confusion in a way that proved that Lee was actually behind the camera. It was a visionary scene that was probably lost in the shuffle due to the remaining poor scenes. The other scene that was worth watching was the way that Lee introduced and ended the film. By keeping the same pacing and direction, he was able to bring this tragic character around full circle and give him the chance to change his life. Other than these two moments, the rest of the film was pure rubbish, not worth viewing unless you are about to go blind.
Grade: ** out of *****
This film has a great supporting cast as do most of Lee's films. It's got Sam L. Jackson, Joie Lee, John Turrtoro, Bill Nunn, and Robin Harris among others. These people are all great actors and always leave an impression on a film even when the film is not that good. This film could have been made better if it had not relied completely on Denzel's character to drive the story, if it had been opened up and given the other actors time to prevail their characters than the film would have been helped by what they could have brought to the table. As the film is it just stays stagnate and not much happens. If you want to hear some good music watch, i would suggest a CD though, stay away if you want a solid story.
It's kind of a dramatic and comedy film. Denzell plays a terrific role as as an artist who only wants his music, and neglects his girlfriends. And after an accident loses his love of his life (music). Only then he starts to realise there is more to his life than music.......
It has all the flaws of Lee's films - tonally all over the place and a tad overlong.
But that's why I love Lee. He is always interesting. I love Inside Man, a more conventional film for Lee, but Mo' Better Blues is far more personal. This is quite clearly a work of love for the director. The cinematography is stunning. The fast dolly shots are similar to that of Scorsese and Hitchcock. The colour is wonderful too, full of rich blues and reds on the New York skyline.
The story is pretty good too, though you will have seen it all before. The tale of a jazz musician and his band, through their highs and lows: in terms of live and music. The acting is all round great, headed by Denzel Washington as Bleek, the artist who loves the music more than his friends. Wesley Snipes is Shadow Henderson. This is back when Snipes didn't have to phone in a performance in a silly action film. Lee himself, and Joie Lee also give fine support.
Let's not forget the music, which is what the film revolves around anyway. If you don't like jazz, I guess this film isn't for you. I myself liked it, it had me tapping my feet all the through.
The film is a little long and can sometimes lose its way, but this is a very enjoyable film, a solid effort from Spike Lee.