Personal rather than social issues come to the fore in Mo’ Better Blues, a Spike Lee personality piece dressed in jazz trappings that puffs itself up like Bird but doesn’t really fly. More focused on the sexual dilemmas of its main character than on musical themes, pic might well be subtitled He’s Gotta Have It.
Pic’s fabulous opening sequence, in which the camera does a sensual pan of jazz images -# a horn, a man’s ear, his mouth # raises expectations for a definitive film on jazz and an ambitious step forward for Lee. But the script unfolds to notes from a different scale: basically the same unique but limited range Lee has drawn on before.
Contempo tale stars Denzel Washington as Bleek Gilliam, a self-absorbed New York horn player who leads a jazz quintet on a roll at a trendy Manhattan club called Beneath the Underdog. The diminutive Lee plays Giant (as in ‘giant pain in the ass’, one character observes), Bleek’s ne’er-do-well friend who’s found a precarious niche as the band’s manager. Joie Lee (Lee’s sister) and Cynda Williams play the women who compete for Bleek’s attention. Also overlooked by the self-centered trumpeter is his sax player, Shadow (Wesley Snipes, in a standout perf).
But if Mo’ Better is soft in the center, the characters in and around the band and the nightclub provide winning entertainment.