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MO’ BETTER BLUES

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 3, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kino Lorber has released five Spike Lee movies as Blu-ray upgrades, four of which I reviewed during my tenure as movie critic for the Deseret News. The past three weeks have seen ‘Crooklyn,’ ‘Clockers’ and “Jungle Fever” in this space; today it’s ‘mo’ better blues,’ reviewed in the Aug. 10, 1990, Deseret News.

Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" last year was a tough-minded, angry exploration of racism that sparked controversy when it was released during the summer, then again when it was overlooked at Oscar time.

Prior to that film the young writer-director gave us the low-budget but innovative "She's Gotta Have It," with its insightful feminist bent, and the offbeat campus musical with a message, "School Daze."

But Lee's latest, "mo' better blues," is not at all controversial and, as far as the story is concerned, something of a traditional Hollywood-style film.

With "mo' better blues," Lee has made a movie about the world of jazz, focusing on one talented artist who is obsessed with his music, but minus the dark clichés of depression and drug abuse that so often pervade movies on this subject.

Oddly, however, in eliminating those clichés Lee has embraced several others, capped by a bizarre domestic ending that seems to toss aside everything that has gone before.

     

Denzel Washington, left, Wesley Snipes, 'mo' better blues' (1990)

Denzel Washington, who won the best supporting actor Oscar last year for "Glory," stars here as Bleek Gilliam, a trumpet player whose music has made his life so insular and rigid that he has, for all intents and purposes, psychologically shut out his friends and lovers.

The central characters surrounding him are Lee himself as Giant, a boyhood friend and manager of Bleek's band; Bleek's two lovers, played exquisitely as very different types by Lee's sister Joie as Indigo and newcomer Cynda Williams as Clarke; and two members of Bleek's band, Shadow (Wesley Snipes) and Left Hand Lacey (Giancarlo Esposito).

Giant, though he offers most of the film's comic relief, is a tragic character. He's no good at managing the group and he's a chronic gambler who loses all his money to his bookie (Ruben Blades) by betting on baseball games. Naturally, Bleek is getting pressure to let him go.

Indigo is a schoolteacher who doesn't show a lot of interest in Washington's music and Clarke is an aspiring singer who hopes Washington will help her get a break. (When Cynda Williams finally gets to sing toward the end of the film, it's a wonderful revelation.)

Meanwhile, there are subplots about Lacey getting uptight when he's razzed about his white girlfriend and Shadow as a talented sax player who tries to outshine Bleek onstage and constantly threatens to get his own gig.

     

All of these elements add tension but some are woefully underdeveloped. The competition between Shadow, who tends to grandstand onstage, and Bleek, who is the headliner, is the most obvious example.

For some reason Bleek never complains about Shadow's antics and they don't seem to have much of a relationship offstage. But when the band's ultimate breakup occurs, it becomes apparent that they are supposed to be close friends and that the breakup is a shattering personal blow.

Still, the performances are first-rate, the music is fabulous and Lee's direction is always stylish and occasionally stunning. His whirling camera, sense of improvisation and wry humor provide a richness that adds layers to the film. And there are many individual scenes that are wonderfully realized.

There's no getting around Lee's talent but in this case his script could have used some polish — or perhaps collaboration.

Spike Lee's "mo' better blues" is rated R for language, violence, sex and nudity.