SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “The Eddy,” streaming now on Netflix.
“The Eddy” opens with a five-minute long take, the camera weaving its way through the titular Parisian jazz club, lingering on the house band as the members swing through an upbeat number before leaving for the pitch black, cigarette-strewn streets.
It’s an opening shot that embodies the complexity and beauty viewers have come to expect from Damien Chazelle, who makes his television debut with the first two episodes of the new Netflix series. But the club’s American owner Elliot Udo (André Holland) is not impressed. He knows the band is off the pace; its mercurial lead singer Maja (Joanna Kulig) isn’t feeling it tonight.
The band might seem in sync to the average listener, but not to Elliot, nor Glen Ballard, the Grammy-winning producer who first dreamt up “The Eddy,” both as a club and a series, back in 2007. Ballard, who composed around 75 songs for the show before it came to fruition, knows exactly what a successful jazz club looks like, and the Eddy isn’t there yet.
“I have lived in Paris for a long time and been to every jazz club in the city multiple times,” Ballard says.
While most clubs around the world stick to the classics, Parisian venues have kept innovating within the genre.
“Jazz never died here, and it sort of died everywhere else. It has become a genre that people look back to,” he says. “They look back to the great artists of jazz, but they don’t look forward at all. I go into jazz clubs here and see people still improvising music for a live audience in an intimate setting. It might not be 50,000 people, but it’s at least 50 people sitting there really digging it.”
All this feels like a familiar rhythm to Chazelle. The half-French Oscar winner has made championing jazz and raising awareness of its decline somewhat of a signature.
After all, in Chazelle’s “La La Land,” Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian delivers a manifesto inside hallowed Los Angeles jazz venue The Lighthouse Café, saying that jazz is “conflict and it’s compromise, it’s just new every time, it’s very, very exciting … and it’s dying on the vine.”
In “The Eddy,” Elliot is a formerly-successful musician in the U.S. who has found a haven and a fresh creative spark in Paris, like so many African American jazz legends before him. He certainly isn’t in it for the money — no jazz musician ever can be — chorus Ballard and Chazelle. But the music gives him and the other characters something else — something more lastingly significant.
After a harrowing night out on the town during which she’s quasi-kidnapped, Elliot’s daughter Julie (Amandla Stenberg) returns to their apartment in tears and pulls out her clarinet. She puts the instrument to her lips and begins playing a slow version of a song she heard at the club earlier — and the sound of those few wavering notes and touch of the mouthpiece help restore her calm.
“The music is a kind of a refuge for the characters, a medicine for them, each character has a different reason to need this music,” Chazelle says. “I guess it’s one of the things that I always find compelling about jazz, especially today, is that it’s not an art form that you go into because you want to be on magazine covers, or to be wined and dined. Jazz requires total devotion and an insane work ethic, without the material rewards.”
Chazelle was brought onto the project by its executive producer Alan Poul, who also tapped “His Dark Materials” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” writer Jack Thorne to form a story around Ballard’s melodies.
Explaining how the “so-called band of four of us came together,” Poul says that he encountered Chazelle’s work through “Whiplash,” which had just premiered at Sundance. He then checked out “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” Chazelle’s first film which also centers on a struggling jazz musician, and realized he had found the ideal “jazz aficionado and brilliant filmmaker” to make “The Eddy” sing.
By the time shooting began last year, Chazelle had added “La La Land” and “Last Man” to his set list, becoming not only a household name, but also someone who understood precisely the kind of improvisational, kinetic environment needed for a series so serious about jazz.
“Either the music would dictate things or the spaces where we were shooting would,” Chazelle says. “The club itself was built for the purpose of being not just a set, but also a recording environment, because we were doing the music live. But everything else was a real location: a real apartment, a real street corner. We tried to be this kind of small, nimble documentary crew essentially, even though we were shooting fiction. We let the actors improvise around the edges, let the streetlights go on as normal, let passers by move past us. What might seem like mistakes in another film, were the kind of little accidents that we actually wanted and encouraged.”
The guttering streetlights and cramped apartments of “The Eddy” are far from the glitzy “city of love” version of Paris that Americans are used to seeing on screen.
But taking its cue from gritty depictions of urban Parisian life seen in “La Haine,” and more recently “Girlhood” and “Divines” (whose helmer Houda Benyamina stepped into the director’s chair after Chazelle for Episodes 3 and 4), “The Eddy” is also about socioeconomic differences in addition to jazz.
“I bored them talking about urban planning, the ring road around Paris and how the city has been a template that others are beginning to follow of basically isolating the poor,” Thorne says of his series premiere pitch. “I told them I saw this as a story about a community of people living on the edge of a city, and how the boiling pot of jazz brings together different groups.”
Elliot and the other characters are at their happiest when the club is packed with patrons and the band is in full swing, an image that is truly of another time today.
An empty silence has befallen jazz clubs all around the world, including Paris, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Venues where Chet Baker once crooned and Miles Davis’ soulful trumpet whipped audiences into an excited frenzy have closed their doors. But “The Eddy” is looking to give it back and remind us of its power.
“I just hope ‘The Eddy’ might open up a new avenue for what jazz can be, starting here in Paris. This city deserves all the credit for never, never giving up on jazz,” Ballard says. “I’ll be headed straight back to the clubs as soon as we come out of lockdown. There’ll be plenty jazz music playing in Paris again soon, I can promise you that.”