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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Blues' Trumpets Lee's Strengths, Weaknesses

August 03, 1990|SHEILA BENSON | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Spike Lee's "Mo' Better Blues" (citywide), about a talented jazz trumpet player willing to sacrifice every relationship to his music, is by turns seductive, engaging and, finally, maddening.

Its first 20-odd minutes, onstage and backstage with jazz musicians and their intimates, are so engrossing that we realize only slowly that there's been no forward motion in the story, nothing but raucous and irresistible diversions.

"Mo' Better Blues" becomes almost a guide to writer-director-producer Lee's strengths and weaknesses today, after four feature films. He's terrific at ambience, at a real feeling for backstage talk and for the ragging and needling that goes on between cronies in any occupation, but particularly music. He's still exercising his own visual brashness, in league with his fine, customary cameraman Ernest Dickerson. In "Mo' Better's" most original sequence, the two women in musician Bleek Gilliam's life seem imperceptibly to replace each other in his bed--we notice that it's first Indigo, then Clarke, then Indigo in his arms as he's making love. It's a great visualization of Bleek's view of the two as virtually interchangeable, heightened when he commits the killer sin of calling one by the other's name.

"Mo Better's" music is splendid, particularly the shivery final "Harlem Blues," unveiling Cynda Williams' voice at last, and Bill Lee's gentle, generous title duet for Terence Blanchard and Branford Marsalis, the musicians behind "Bleek Gilliam" and "Shadow Henderson." The movie is even radical enough to suggest that practice is as much a daily part of a musician's life as it is an athlete's or a dancer's.

Some of the other pluses include Denzel Washington's care in making Gilliam believable as a man who's listening to the music inside his head most of the time--it's the quality that underscores his aloofness. There's Lee's mouthy, manipulating Giant, the band's manager and compulsive gambler; the late Robin Harris' genially "nasty" club comedian, Butterbean, a rich, lusty performance that makes our loss seem all the deeper; Giancarlo Esposito's fussily dressed piano man, Left Hand Lacey, who affects pince-nez glasses and a French girlfriend, and Wesley Snipes's terrific Shadow Henderson, whose musicianship seems to threaten Gilliam's.

But does it? That's one of the movie's worst-answered questions. Lee's writing has always been his weak spot, and "Mo' Better Blues" makes this sometimes all too clear. As given maximum charisma by Washington's performance and Terence Blanchard's playing, Gilliam doesn't seem to be threatened by anyone; if Shadow is hogging the solos, well, doesn't Gilliam have the right to object? Isn't it Gilliam these Manhattan audiences have come to hear? Non-jazz buffs need this explained, please.

The film's two women--would-be jazz singer Clarke (Cynda Williams), whose ambitions Gilliam won't take seriously, and school teacher Indigo (Joie Lee)--are elegant props who speechify most of the time. Until her final scene, Williams is too much the tentative newcomer to make an impression deeper than her beauty, and only Joie Lee's intrinsic tenacity, as palpable as her brother's, makes Indigo into the presence she is.

Writer Lee spends more than three-quarters of his story showing us a Bleek Gilliam who is cool and guarded, the man who says that without his music he'd die. Suddenly, though not entirely improbably, music seems to be out of his life. What does this obsessed artist do, in exactly 7 minutes and 46 seconds, the length of Part I of John Coltrane's great "A Love Supreme," which underlines the final montage? In a romance-novel ending that Lee himself would once have satirized, Bleek turns 180 degrees to show us that love is supreme, that family is what really matters and that if he couldn't ever play a lick again, hey, it's not the end of the world.

Where does this come from? How does an emotional glacier thaw instantaneously, and why wouldn't that woman in question simply look at him and say, "Late!" Also, Lee hasn't exactly filled us in on details of Gilliam's career, other than that it's being roundly mismanaged by Giant. We don't know how Gilliam makes his money, what pays for his cool clothes, whether he's struggling upward or has arrived, even whether he's made records or not. (One scene suggests that he has recorded; who managed that deal, Giant?) Plot whiplash like this leaves an audience brooding: What are Bleek and his tiny family living on, his new wife's salary? When was he lying when he talked about his music, then or now? What shape is his stomach lining in, after this much repression?

At least three of Spike Lee's four movies have wrestled with the question of a man who refuses to grow up, confronted by a woman who insists that he does. It may be a worry that's close to the bone for Lee himself: How does an obsessed artist fit any relationships into his life, especially one with a strong contemporary woman?

You won't find a reasoned-out answer here. To his credit, Lee is thrashing around, sorting things through, not giving up on the problem. But to look at "Mo' Better's" blissed-out conclusion, which could be a Back to School Levi's commercial, is to see that this is the spot that's still giving him trouble.

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