At least a half-dozen movies are struggling to get out of the ambitious but maddening hodgepodge that is writer-producer-director Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues. At the center is a romantic triangle: Bleek Gilliam, the Brooklyn-born jazz trumpeter played by Denzel Washington, is juggling two women — Indigo Downes, a dedicated schoolteacher played by Joie Lee (Spike’s sister), and Clarke Bentancourt, an aspiring singer and sexual bombshell played by newcomer Cynda Williams. The women don’t like being treated interchangeably, especially when Bleek buys them the same red dress and mixes up their names in bed. “With men, it’s a dick thing,” Bleek says feebly. But Indigo and Clarke know it’s more than that: It’s a music thing. Bleek’s heart belongs to his trumpet.
Lee and the wizardly cinematographer Ernest Dickerson combine bodies and musical instruments — the two chief pulls on Bleek — with wanton seductiveness. But the film’s erotic luster can’t disguise its shopworn theme. Kirk Douglas did something close to the Bleek character forty years ago in Young Man With a Horn, with Doris Day and Lauren Bacall. But that film was about and primarily for whites. Black musicians (the originators of jazz) were relegated to the background.
Spike Lee has helped right that wrong by making a film about and primarily for blacks. Unfortunately, he has merely reshuffled the Hollywood clichTs instead of rethinking them. Now the whites have supporting roles. John and Nicholas Turturro provide comic relief as the Flatbush brothers, the exploitative owners of the club where the Bleek Quintet performs. And despite the leading-man magnetism of Washington, a 1990 Oscar winner for Glory, the love story creaks. Bleek may have a new name for the sex act — he calls it the “mo’ better” — but he’s caught in a hackneyed art-versus-life struggle.
Joie Lee and Williams work strenuously to find depth in their characters, who are written as madonna and whore respectively. The relationships never develop past the formulaic level, the way they did in Spike Lee’s perceptive first feature, She’s Gotta Have It. His agenda is simply too crowded.
Lee wants to cram in so much (a fault shared by his second feature, School Daze) that he ends up glossing over the essentials. The creator of the masterful Do the Right Thing has a justifiable ax to grind over Hollywood’s racist attitude toward black jazz artists. Stereotypes have abounded since 1927, when Al Jolson donned blackface to star in The Jazz Singer. For Lee, such recent jazz-oriented films as Clint Eastwood’s Bird and Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight were “narrow depictions” of self-destructive black musicians more connected to white saviors than black peers. Lee wanted to make a fictional movie about the young black jazz musicians of today, a movie with a sense of humor, romance, diversity and pride in the black community.
In the process, Lee has idealized the contemporary jazz world, a world he knows from the inside. His father, the jazz musician and composer Bill Lee, has composed the scores for all four of Spike’s films. His friend Branford Marsalis, the saxophonist-composer, has contributed to the film’s score and helped inspire the story. There are more than a few similarities between Bleek and Branford’s brother Wynton Marsalis, a trumpeter noted for his traditionalist views.
Bleek’s rival in love and career is saxophonist Shadow Henderson, played by Wesley Snipes in the film’s most arresting performance. When Bleek complains that blacks don’t support their own music and that whites make up most of the jazzclub audience, Shadow retorts that “if grandiose motherfuckers like you presented the music in a way that they like it, motherfuckers would come.” (Until his concert schedule interfered, Branford Marsalis was set to play Shadow.)
The degree to which an artist must adjust or compromise his work to reach an audience is a worthy subject that Lee abandons almost as soon as he introduces it. He also fudges some of the details. Except for drummer Jeff Watts, who plays Rhythm Jones, all of the members of the Bleek Quintet are played by nonmusicians — Washington, Snipes, Bill Nunn as the bassist Bottom Hammer and Giancarlo Esposito as the piano man Left Hand Lacey — who had to be painstakingly trained by pros to go through the motions of playing. (What you’re really hearing is the Branford Marsalis Quartet with Terence Blanchard on trumpet.) After all that effort, Lee then shows the quintet playing in a lush, spacious art deco nightclub out of movie fantasy and living in expensive lofts and apartments out of the reach of these characters. Lee admits to taking liberties with the facts to show “what jazz musicians could have.”
These liberties rob the film of credibility. But it’s the melodrama that robs it of truth. As long as Lee sticks to the humorous backstage squabbling among the band members, he’s on solid ground. Wearing his acting hat, Lee gets laughs as Giant, the band manager, who has little talent for managing and less for gambling. But even Giant must bear symbolic weight. To turn Bleek into a black role model, Lee has him rescue Giant from a beating by loan sharks. Bleek is then brutalized himself; the hoods use his horn to destroy his lip and his livelihood.
A year later, Bleek tries to play in a club featuring the now famous Clarke and the Shadow Henderson Quintet, but he’s lost it. Running outside in a storm, he throws his horn to Giant, who vows, “I won’t sell it,” as the rain pours down.
The scene is baloney, Hollywood hokum untempered by irony. And it’s followed by an even more unworkable montage sequence covering eight years during which Bleek is redeemed through love, family, friends and God. Lee is trying for spiritual catharsis; the musical accompaniment is John Coltrane’s classic “A Love Supreme.” But he achieves only confusion.
At the end, Bleek has presumably learned how to love. But crucial questions go frustratingly unanswered: How has he learned to live? What part does music play in his life now? How does he deal with his torments? A film that could have been the first cleareyed view of the jazz world from a black perspective ends as a romanticized fable. For the only time in his remarkable career, Spike Lee has failed to tell it like it is.