Since directing his first feature film only four years ago, Spike Lee has swiftly built a reputation as one of America’s most gifted—and controversial— film-makers. In his first movie, She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Lee presented a modern fable of sexual liberation with his sympathetic portrayal of a young black woman who unapologetically sleeps with three different men in turn. In School Daze (1988), the director used a story about fraternity life at an all-black college as a backdrop for examining the contentious issue of whether blacks discriminate among themselves based on the shade of their skin. And some critics interpreted Do the Right Thing (1989), an unsettling tale of racial strife in Brooklyn, as an incitement to use violence as a tool for social change. But, with his newest movie, he has avoided such politically charged issues. In Mo’ Better Blues, for which he also wrote the screenplay, Lee focuses instead on the personal and professional crises of one individual. The result is a dramatic disappointment—and a movie that lacks the intelligence and flair of Lee’s earlier films.
Set to a sumptuous score composed by the director’s father, bassist Bill Lee, the story opens in a middle-class black neighborhood in Brooklyn in 1968. Drifting from the second-storey window of a brownstone apartment building are the awkward strains of a little boy practising his trumpet. Inside, young Bleek Gilliam (Zakee L. Howze) puts down his instrument to plead with his mother (Abbey Lincoln) to let him go outside and play. But she refuses, and despite his exaggerated pouting, it is clear that the little boy loves the instrument that is fully half his size—and that one day his practising will pay off. It does. Gilliam grows up to become a bandleader (played by Denzel Washington), and the story quickly jumps to the present. In the smoky, sultry world of Beneath the Under-
dog, an upscale Brooklyn jazz club, his band, The Bleek Quintet, is a hot act.
But while Gilliam’s performing has clearly matured over the years, his approach to personal relationships has remained oddly childlike. His manager, known simply as Giant, and played by Lee, is gambling away much of the band’s meagre earnings. When Gilliam’s saxophonist, Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes), attempts to convince the bandleader to find a
more reliable manager, Gilliam simply refuses to listen. At the same time, Gilliam seems curiously unresponsive to Shadow’s own obvious aspirations to oust the bandleader from centre stage. A man who lives for jazz, Gilliam is almost incredibly blind to the dangers that threaten his musical livelihood.
Gilliam’s personal life also suffers in the face of his all-consuming devotion to music. Obsessed by his trumpet, he must concentrate even to remember the first names of the two women, Indigo Downes (played by Joie Lee, the director’s sister) and Clarke Bentancourt (Cynda Williams), with whom he regularly has sex—an act that several of the movie’s characters refer to as “mo’ better” because they say that is how it makes them feel.
In the scenes with Gilliam’s lovers, at least, the film creatively conveys the musician’s overwhelming passion for his art. One rivetting scene begins with his attempting to compose a tune while Bentancourt tries to engage him in conversation. The chords that Gilliam hears playing in his head build into a crescendo of frenetic jazz that ultimately drowns out her pleas for attention. In another scene, the two women notice each other at Beneath the Underdog wearing identical bright-red dresses given to them by the distracted bandleader.
Washington, who won an Academy Award as best supporting actor for his portrayal of a Civil War soldier in the 1989 movie Glory, seems uncertain of how to handle the demanding role of Gilliam. Persuasive in his depiction of the musician’s single-minded determination, he is less adept at evoking the despair that Gilliam is forced to confront as personal and professional crises rack his life. And Lee, whose comic timing and insouciant manner brought a touch of charm to his earlier roles in his own films, never fully masters the role of the cagey Giant. Fasttalking and flip, his glib performance fails to convey any sense of the desperation that drives a compulsive gambler to betray his friends.
Cast as foils to Gilliam’s brooding hero, Williams and Joie Lee almost eclipse the movie’s more prominently featured male characters. In her first feature film, Williams shines as the beguiling Bentancourt, a record-store clerk who refuses to allow her love for Gilliam to stand in the way of her dream of becoming a professional singer. And Lee lights up the screen with her sassy portrayal of the devoted Downes. Hopelessly in love, but pragmatic about o the prospects of convincing
Gilliam to settle down, she 5 succeeds in bringing a genuine
touch of lightness to the over$ bearing gloom that pervades
But those memorable performances cannot compensate for the movie’s sketchily defined central characters—or for a script that fails to deliver a convincing portrait of its subject matter. Although its depiction of the often-seedy world of black jazz is at times engaging, Mo’ Better Blues delivers only the faint echo of a richness that seems to lie just below the movie’s surface. As a result, the film also fails to evoke any heartfelt sense of the personal anguish that can accompany an artist’s unswerving dedication to his craft. Switching his focus from the political level to a more personal one, Spike Lee has produced his first movie that is neither daring nor provocative— and not particularly entertaining.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.