MO' BETTER BLUES
Film Review © 1990 by Trip Reynolds
Directed by Spike Lee; Screenplay by Spike Lee
Starring Denzel Washington (as jazz trumpeter "Bleek Gilliam"), Spike Lee (as Bleek's friend and stereotypically troubled gambler "Giant"), Wesley Snipes (as competitive jazz musician "Shadow Henderson"), Joie Lee (as Bleek's dark-skinned Black girlfriend), and Cynda Williams (as Bleek's light-skinned Black girlfriend), plus Rubén Blades, Tracy Camilla Johns, Robin Harris, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Nicholas Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbey Lincoln (really!) and Joe Seneca in supporting roles.
There nothin' mo' better here. What's the deal Spike? Couldn't you come up with a better ending? Of course, promotional ads include critical acclaim for Spike Lee's latest "joint" (i.e., production). Siskel & Ebert gave it "Two Thumbs Up." Others say it's one of the best films of the year. Don't buy the hype. Heads up, the film sucks!
"mo' better blues" suffers from poor pacing, lack of direction and, sadly, an absence of a defined ending. On the whole, film is just bits and pieces, episodic, too long, and again showcases Lee's failure as a complete storyteller despite again taking the helm to produce, write, act in and direct this film. Moments of potential brilliance as dialogued in three notable sequences were never realized. Denzel Washington is commanding on screen as horn playing jazz musician "Bleek". Even Spike Lee is competent in his weasel looking character "Giant," a better candidate for gambler's anonymous you'd never find. Film took forever to get anywhere. Particularly annoying is the continuous, nonstop Bill Lee background score for "mo' better blues that constantly detracted from the foreground music played by Bleek. Don't rush out and buy the soundtrack.
Mr. Lee has gone on record stating how he hopes to present positive images of Black men and women through his films. Yet again, Lee promotes the absence of the Black male figure in Black families by presenting the stereotypical little boy (in this case "Bleek") who's mother makes him practice while his friends play baseball. Where's Bleek's father? Why again present yet another BLACK mother wearing the pants in the family? Given all the noise about a lack of strong Black male role models in film, why did Lee present these characterizations? Remember, he wrote this crap, including the particularly degrading treatment of women in his film. Bleek has to have two women, one dark-skinned Black woman, and one light-skinned Black woman. Visions of Lee's 1988 film "School Daze" come to mind (is there a subliminal message here) as these women, who know about each other, allow Bleek to have his way with them. Notably, it's interesting how a film maker can artistically ignore contemporary health issues such as Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) including AIDS for the sake of plot. Frankly, given the current high incidence of AIDS among Black women in the New York City area, by ignoring this issue, Lee truly has made this film a fantasy.
Film shows only the surface of Bleek's character but not his driving force, or the reasons for his ultimate ambitions. Essentially, we see Bleek at his prime. He had concerts, club dates and recordings. He was making it. It was obvious that he had something going for him, but what? I kept waiting to be enlightened and the next thing I saw was a little girl writing "The End" on the street and the beginning of the credit crawl. Lee's a snappy screenwriter who produces great dialogue exchanges between characters, often taking the cliché and making it fresh, but he does these things episodically, not with continuity. Lee fails to achieve an arch of story development - it's called storytelling.
And what a lousy, cheap, easy ending. So, Bleek gets saved, marries the dark-skinned Black girl (instead of the light-skinned Black girl) he dogged around the entire movie (obviously she's a weak, submissive individual, after all, we don't know much about her either), they have a baby and live happily ever after. Oh, and we close with a rehash of the opening sequence of Bleek's son, as the lone little boy who's told by his mother to practice while his friends play baseball. Yes, we've seen this stereotype a thousand times. Give me a break. This was so sad, I sat there laughing at this weak ending. Come on, Spike, who are you kidding, is this truly film noir? Lee's film left many important questions unanswered. Despite the appearance of nonspecific health related problems, why didn't Bleek try for a comeback? What exactly did Bleek do for a living after he gave up his horn? Did his wife support him? Perhaps Lee figured his reoccurring ensemble cast would just end the film for him.
This film was dedicated to the late Robin Harris. Even his last film appearance wasn't enough to save this film. I mentioned earlier that three sequences in this film were brilliant. One, where Bleek is composing at the piano and is oblivious to the ranting and raving of the woman he just made love to. Two, where through some sharp editing Bleek appears to be making love to both of his women at the same time. Three, where Giant then Bleek get the shit knocked out of them. Collectively, these three sequences could have been stretched to make a solid one hour TV drama, but not a full length motion picture. We can applaud Lee's social commentary while sadly watching his continued failure to become an accomplished storyteller.
There are good films about jazz and "mo' better blues" is not one of them. "Young Man With A Horn," from 1950, starring Kirk Douglas is an absolutely great film, a great jazz film, and a film with a great jazz soundtrack! Plus, "'Round Midnight," from 1986, and "Bird," from 1988, also clearly come to mind as absolutely great films, great jazz films, and films with great jazz soundtracks. Sorry, Spike, but again, your film sucks.
Film has a uneven running length of 135 minutes.
Recommendation: It's strictly a TV movie, with lots of commercials added to provide you with plenty of time to do something else! It's the perfect film for background noise and multi-tasking while doing more important things at home - like cutting the grass.