Child Bleek has to stay indoors and learn the trumpet rather than play outside with his pals, and forms a successful band in adulthood - The Bleek Gilliam Quartet. But 'friendly' rivalry in the quartet threatens to break up the band.
Spike Lee’s reaction to the instant critical cliché that he was “the black Woody Allen” was a barbed quip to the effect that his ambition is to be “the first black actor to have a speaking part in a Woody Allen movie”. The comparison derived its legitimacy from the irrefutable fact that Allen and Lee are fast-talking bespectacled midgets from Brooklyn who also happen to be cinematic polymaths specialising in claustrophobic New York-based ensemble pieces performed by what are virtually repertory companies. Mo’ Better Blues is a much better movie than its press would suggest; and, like all Lee’s movies, it’s several films in one.
Among the many things it is: a jazz equivalent to Spinal Tap, with characterisations and dialogue which will draw a sympathetic wince from anybody who’s ever played in a band of any sort at any time; a study in the psychology of obsession, playing off Denzel Washington’s taut portrayal of the driven musician (trumpeter Bleek Gilliam, a parallel-world Wynton Marsalis) and Lee’s own personal acting best as the equally driven gambler Giant (climaxing, incidentally, in the most savage on-screen beating to which any actor/director has subjected himself in the three decades since Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks); an essay on sexual promiscuity which provides as perfect a profile of the insecurities driving male promiscuity as Tracy Camila Johns’ Nola darling in Lee’s first feature She’s Gotta Have It; a dissection of the relationship between black artists and Jewish entrepreneurs (itself an important subtext of both New York jazz and Lee’s own relationships with Hollywood); a philli-pic about the importance of the preservation of cultural traditions, and much, much more.
Like all Lee’s film, Mo’ Better Blues is a real ensemble piece, and the standard of the performances is uniformly excellent: but Washington, Lee himself and Joie Lee (whose wiry, big-eyed Simpson-haired Indigo is the guardian of the movie’s integrity) deserve extra plaudits. Spike Lee is the most genuinely stimulating and provocative film-maker around at the moment; Mo’ Better Blues is much mo’ better than its detractors might suggest. Incidentally, even if Woody Allen signed Lee up tomorrow, they’d already be too late, since a black actor had two whole lines in Love And Death. Make that “major speaking part,” Spike.
Its tight, suspenseful, funny and packed with great music.