Mo’ Better Blues

This stylish melodrama is structured like a mini-epic. It begins with the protagonist, jazz great Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington), as a boy who has to be nagged into finishing his trumpet practice before going out to play; it ends with an echoing scene in which the adult Bleek watches his wife nag their own son into practicing. Is it a smooth transition? Not really. Spike Lee isn’t generally known for the smoothness of his scripts. This one has the same problem as School Daze — it tries to put way too many eggs in one basket. Lee touches on work, professionalism, loyalty, sexuality, gambling, family, career-ending injuries, racism (lightly), the declining black audience for jazz, even gangsters. That’s a lot of ground to cover, so it isn’t surprising that Lee drops the ball all over the place — especially in the last half hour, when, after Bleek undergoes a life-altering crisis, the movie goes thud.

Lee’s filmmaking is as alive as ever, though, and the movie is best when he’s just goofing around. He doesn’t have anyone speak directly to the camera this time (a break from his previous films), but he does something even better: When the two-timing Bleek is in bed with one girlfriend (Cynda Williams) and confuses her with another (Joie Lee), the women’s identities merge, and Bleek just keeps looking from one to the other until he just stares at us, dumbfounded. It’s a good gag, as is the device of Bleek’s manager and childhood buddy Giant (Lee himself), a compulsive gambler, continually showing up with broken fingers from run-ins with local hoods. This meditation on life and art — perhaps, for Lee at that time (before he got married and had kids), a bit autobiographical — is entertaining enough until the closing “Love Supreme” montage, in which Bleek discovers love and finds inner peace; it’s a dud, an eleventh-hour attempt at uplift, and perhaps it feels false because Lee at that point hadn’t yet found those things himself and was working from wishful thinking. Washington, in the first of four movies with Spike, shines in a rare, loose, overtly sexy and romantic role — he should work more with Spike, or at least work less with directors who don’t know how to bring out his best.

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