Spike Lee: Mo' Better Blues (1990) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

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Spike Lee takes a step away from courting controversy and toward the music that he loves.  In Mo' Better Blues, Bleek is a jazz trumpeter trying to keep his love life and opportunistic band from silencing his muse or stifling his way of living.  Mo' Better Blues stars Denzel Washington, Joie Lee, Cynda Williams, Wesley Snipes, and many more.

Sweet and smoothKyle Commentary BannerMo' Better Blues has an unfortunate place in Spike Lee's filmography coming right after Do the Right Thing. It would almost be easier to dissect how I felt about it if it were a bad movie—the fact that it's a decent one, just not as powerful or ambitious as Do the Right Thing, puts it in a position to damned by faint praise. I didn't love Mo' Better Blues, but I was always interested—the ending, which fits but in a way that seems forced and artificial, contributes significantly to a lack of any overwhelming response. The four leads (Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Joie Lee, and Cynda Williams) are all great, but they also seem to be developing characters more full than the movie sometimes allows.

I can pinpoint pretty specifically for me how the movie's last act drains a lot of the effect of the earlier portions, but what did you think?It's quiet timeAndrewCommentaryBannerI was intermittently entertained, sometimes intrigued, disappointed, and then after the last act flat-out disgusted with Mo' Better Blues.  All of those emotions are possible because, in many ways, Mo' Better Blues feels like the kind of sophomore artwork that's made when an artist's debut work is a surprise success.  The most interesting contemporary example I can think of is Richard Kelly going from the incremental low-key weirdness of Donnie Darko to the complete mind blast that is Southland Tales.  But Lee's film is much better than that, feeling at times like a movie very much out of step with the times with its more classical elements regarding a modestly successful musicians rise and fall with the conservative framing going on in front of the camera.  A lot of Mo' Better Blues is a positioned as a direct response to some of the criticisms of Do the Right Thing, especially in its calmer tone and different take on race issues, but the overall impact only occurs during that final act.

Behind the scenes, the relationship between Spike, his sister Joie, and father Bill had deteriorated to an immense degree.  Joie was not getting comfortable with Spike filming her in the shower during Do the Right Thing, and both of them were alternately abusive and distant to one another during the love scenes of Mo' Better Blues.  This is obvious in the chemistry between Denzel and Joie as she is unable to give into the passion or despair that he is trying so hard to lead her toward (which is also an issue with Cynda Williams, but for different reasons).  Then Spike's issues with his father's growing drug problems and mutual need to control the music led to Bill's music contributions for Mo' Better Blues being the last that he would ever do for one of Spike's films.

Even without that context, the last act is an abusive nightmare with a lot of unresolved issues as Bleek, in what is now three for four in Spike's films, forces himself on Indigo and somehow they get past the rape and into a happy home.  Out of context it's more than obvious, even without the previous films, that Spike is dealing with some gender control and perception issues in the way Indigo's "No" and "Don't" are ignored entirely by Bleek.  But they haven't seen each other for a yet, so are we to conclude that the rape was just so good that she forgave him for disappearing and then violating her?  That's a terrible question that's nonetheless posed because of this scene.  Then we've got the ending, with Bleek, now as a father, in a happier union than his own parents, encouraging their son to do what he wants.  Adding the familial tensions in as context these moments are now fraught with unresolved problems that are fascinating to think about as a morally repugnant solution to Bleek's fictional ills, and almost as punishment for Joie and Bill.Twiddly twiddly beedly beedlyTiny Kyle CommentaryThe most interesting thing about the ending is that Lee has Indigo call Bleek’s sudden renewed interest in her exactly what it is. After he flees Shadow’s nightclub, unable to play his music and reduced essentially to a pity case, he goes to the only person left in his life (or what we've seen of it) who wasn't there for the humiliation. Shadow and Giant see him try to play and fail, and Clarke isn't a romantic option anymore—so he goes to Indigo.

We don’t get enough information about what happened between this time and his injury a year earlier to really know why he stopped seeing Indigo, and Lee isn't interested in having him explain. Instead, she outright tells him “You're only here because you can't play,” confirming the audience's experience of the preceding scenes. Up until this moment, the strange time jump following Bleek's injury could still work to great effect, because we're seeing the full extent of his previous self-absorption realized.

That's what makes the ending so jarring, both morally and narratively—why does Bleek need a happy ending? Only the 5 or so minutes prior to this scene show him with any true hardships to overcome (the rest of the movie he seems to be doing just fine), and if the idea was to have him atone for his own mistakes, that's certainly not what happens. It's baffling that Lee doesn't even set up a reason for the happy ending to matter.

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryIf Do the Right Thing was about the secret resentments everyone had for one another on the basis of race, Mo' Better Blues is more how Bleek, his associates, and loved ones, all have an obsession that all others are mere stepping-stones for.  Clarke has a quiet obsession with her voice, the owners of the bar have total faith in numbers, Giant with gambling, Left Hand Lacey with obtaining a kind of perfect cultural harmony, and so on.  The best connecting point to how we arrive at that conclusion, also the film's better moments, show Bleek as someone who used all other relationships as merely a background to his creative impulses.

My favorite sequences in the film involve this tensions, and  also highlight a trick of Spike's that we'll see more in motion as films go on.  There are many times where Bleek or another character are drifting away from the people in their thoughts and as the world begins to swirl around they seem stationary in a world content to keep on moving.  It's a double dolly shot, accomplished by putting the performer(s) on one dolly, the camera on another, then moving the two separately - and it will be rare to see a Spike Lee film get to the credits without at least one from this point on.  Spike apparently discovered this during Mo' Better Blues (his love for Jean Cocteau's take on Beauty and the Beast shining through at last), and it's used a handful of times, all to good effect.

If I had to pick one that made me happiest, it is when Bleek really is alone and he's letting his creative juices entirely out of his mind.  His mouth seems to be spitting out gibberish and his hand moving erratically while Denzel maintains an intense stare that does not break from the audience.  Then the world spins, he continues on, and his concentration is finally broken because of Clarke's arrival.  I love how unhinged both he and the world become, the weird necessity of the creative process, and how his ability to tune the world out leads to the amusingly titled, "Pop Top 40 R&B Urban Contemporary Easy Listening Funk Love."Smack happyTiny Kyle CommentaryI like the observation that every character—rather than just Bleek—see others as stepping stones for their own success, especially with how we see Shadow at the end with his own club where Clarke sings and Giant works as a doorman. It does a nice job suddenly undercutting the real gravity of Bleek's injury.

The one other thing I will say here is that Denzel Washington is terrific—he has a kind of quietly intense quality that seems like it could clash with Lee's more energetic style (which is admittedly toned down here at times), but actually works to set the character apart more. He's working in his own world even when the camera isn't trying to position him visually so. We'll see him again a few more times, but it makes me wish he and Lee worked more together.

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryConsidering their collaboration here eventually led to Malcolm X's greenlight, it's a good start.  I'm so used to seeing Denzel as a saint that the scene where he is arguing with Clarke and Indigo, becoming increasingly annoyed and withdrawn from the both of them, is a small wonder.  It's got that mix of Lee's willingness to bend the cinematic reality of the story along with Denzel's brilliant deadpan.  When he finally stares at the audience in resignation I just had to giggle.

But that toned down energy, as well as some heavy intertextual elements present in Mo' Better Blues, is what makes it that reflexive sophomore effort I mentioned at the start.  Lee was directly responding to his critics in a few ways by toning down the energy of the film, partly proving that he could tell a "mature" story, and also that he could try and address some of the concerns of reverse racism people had about Do the Right Thing.

That's also the only time I will use the term, because either something is racist or it's not, and privileging specific kinds of racism with its own term is a tool of the people who have already won.  But I can't help that Spike really missed the target during two of his attempts at responding here with the Jewish club owners and the shrill white French girlfriend of Left Hand Lacey.  John Turturro didn't feel like his role was offensive, and I agree, there's just enough weirdness about the owners that their obsession with numbers comes off more as a fun quirk than a hateful stab at a stereotype.  I have no reasoning for the French girlfriend, who is a shrill strawperson who also embodies both some of Spike's problematic gender issues as well.

Please Sammy PleaseTiny Kyle CommentaryI completely glossed over the French girlfriend, though you're right. I was more surprised by the Jewish club owners—they seem like something out of a Coen brothers movie (though that could just be Turturro). If they'd fit the tone a bit more, I may have been able to dismiss them as funny cartoon characters, but I can't quite grasp why they're presented this way. They're obviously based in stereotype, and since their sole purpose in the movie is screwing Bleek and his crew, they never came across as particularly funny to me.

It didn't seem like a deliberate and pointed jab, but it did seem like Lee needed characters to act as obstacles to Bleek and his band's success, and these caricatures were the ones he carelessly chose.

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryUnfortunate is a good term for a lot of the decisions that took me out of the film.  Having Flava Flav read the opening Universal logo and congratulate himself for doing so set a bad self-impressed tone right out of the gate.  The additional moments of intertextuality, admittedly enhanced because of how recently we watched Spike's previous films, did not do much to enhance Mo' Better Blues.  The worst of these was the introduction of Samuel Jackson doing a double role reprising both Senor Love Daddy and then floating into the film as a sadistic collector, and even though I did like the touch where he could take on everyone despite the brace on his leg, it felt like such a deliberate and unnecessary nod toward Do the Right Thing that I'm surprised Spike's headed didn't roll off during the scene.  The best moments are merely amusing, like when Bleek rattles off Mars Blackmon's famous, "Please baby please," line during his song.

It's fragmented, and not in a way where the disparate elements have good cause to play off one another.  Spike's desire to make a film that reflected his feelings growing up in a world of music fuels the best parts of Mo' Better Blues, and his gender issues and drive to respond to his critics almost play entirely apart from that narrative.  I liked the world where Bleek dogs on his band mates, floats in the sky, and makes beautiful music onstage.  I'm less enamored with the Bleek who rapes without consequence, the straw targets Spike set up, and the too-often willingness to pat himself on the back for his accomplishments.  Those stand on their own, I just wish Mo' Better Blues did the same.

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Next time, Jungle Fever.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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