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Flashback - Spike Lee's "Mo' Better Blues" Starring Denzel Washington

by Cynthia Reid
November 20, 2011 11:25 AM
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Spike Lee's fourth feature film, Mo' Better Blues, is one of his films that I think got shafted in some way.  It was released right after the controversial, highly debated Do The Right Thing, therefore, the expectations were high...maybe too high for a jazz-centered flick.

Besides Denzel Washington, the all-star cast includes Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Joie Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Nicholas Turturro, Charles Murphy, Ruben Blades, Abby Lincoln, Samuel L. Jackson and Cynda Williams

The story centers on a fictional trumpeter named Bleek Gilliam played by Washington.  He leads a quartet, The Bleek Gilliam Quartet, at the Beneath the Underground club with a flashy saxophonist named Shadow Henderson (Snipes).  Though Shadow takes a few too many solos, everything seems fine in Bleek's life. Trouble soon arises, however, and he is forced to make decisions regarding both his best friend and manager Giant (Spike Lee), who is addicted to gambling and often gets roughed up by thugs. Bleek is the only member of the quintet who wants to keep him as manager. He also must decide between two girlfriends who both love him: Indigo the schoolteacher (Lee) and Clark (Williams), a singer.

Although most of the reviews for the film were favorable, there seemed to be an underlying theme of it lacking the "edge" of his other films.  High scores were given, as expected, for the music and visual styling of the film.  Roger Ebert stated... "Mo' Better Blues is not a great film, but it's an interesting one, which is almost as rare.  There are scenes that seem incompletely thought-out, improvised dialog that sounds more like improvisation than dialog, and those strange narrative bookends at the top and bottom of the movie. But the film has a beauty, grace and energy all the same."

The soundtrack, which features the music of John Coltrane, Branford Marsalis and Bill Lee (Spike's father), easily makes up for the shortcomings of the flick.

I often wonder if it didn't immediately follow Do The Right Thing would the collective response been different?  We'll never know.  Anyway, check out two favorite musical selections below.  "Harlem Blues" by Cynda Williams and "Mo' Better Blues" by the Brandford Marsalis Quartet.

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  • killa | November 27, 2011 1:56 AMReply

    classic black. never before have we seen such an AWEsome assembly of black talent concentrated in one production. abbey. dick anthony. samuel. wesley. denzel. not before. not since.

    classic black. never before have we seen a black man and black woman make love on screen in such an honest way. bleek and clark. both legs up!

    revolutionary. that's it.

  • urbanauteur | November 22, 2011 12:22 PMReply

    A derivatively,jazz infused Aria.
    p.s.-take that!...clint eastwood.

  • MFAScreenwriter | November 20, 2011 7:09 PMReply

    There's something to take away from every Spike Lee film, IMO. The film has a good "feel" to it--the setting, music, lighting...

    That said, there's no story. The Denzel character is exactly the same as he was in the beginning at the end. His getting hurt and having to deal with the fallout (namely lead a more balanced life rather than one totally consumed by music) happens 10 minutes before the movie ends rather than 10 minutes into the movie!!

  • AccidentalVisitor | November 20, 2011 5:09 PMReply

    I never agreed with the recent assessment that "Mo' Better Blues" is underrated. It is nothing more than a solid to average film that is elevated abit by great music and beautiful cinematography.

    However the script is weak, the lead character is underdeveloped, a bit unsymapthetic and relatively uninteresting, the score/soundtrack is turned up so loud that it gets in the way of the dialogue so one has a hard time hearing what the characters are saying, the lifestyle of the band, including the beautiful Harlem clubs filled by mostly black patrons, was unrealistic (even Spike conceded that), the Jewish club owners were insulting caricatures, the Robin Harris bits seemed disconnected from the rest of the story and Spike, once again, is one note in his performance as Bleek's manager (which further proved Spike's ego was getting out of hand).

  • killah | November 20, 2011 6:05 PM


  • nyc/caribbean ragazza | November 20, 2011 2:13 PMReply

    It's sad that a film like "Mo' Better Blues" would never get a greenlight from a studio today.

    I agree with Neziah, "Clockers" was incredible.

  • Neziah | November 20, 2011 1:40 PMReply

    Not his most underrated film (That would be "Clockers"), but it certainly comes close. This film really doesn't get enough credit; The improvising is terrific, it's beautifully shot and has great music. It's also more energetic and compelling than a lot of other films of its type. Spike was at the top of his game when he made this classic.

  • Sergio | November 20, 2011 1:15 PMReply

    The favorite Spike Lee film after Malcolm X and a film in desperate need of a spectacular blu-ray DVD release

  • LRM | November 20, 2011 12:33 PMReply

    SUPERB FILM -We need more of this not another FRIDAY!

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