Movies Revisited: Mo Better Blues
Even though this movie was highly anticipated when it came out, and I did indeed see it then, there were only a few details I remembered…the beautiful clothes, how pretty everyone looked, slightly crushing on Wesley Snipes (long gone, of course). But watching it again brought me a bit past my original superficial thoughts on the film.
For those of you who don’t know, the plot synopsis is this (from IMDB–not a very good one, sorry):
Opens with Bleek as a child learning to play the trumpet, his friends want him to come out and play but mother insists he finish his lessons. Bleek grows into adulthood and forms his own band – The Bleek Gilliam Quartet. The story of Bleek’s and Shadow’s friendly rivalry on stage which spills into their professional relationship and threatens to tear apart the quartet.
Like many of Spike’s films, I found parts of Mo Better Blues to be pretentious and cartoony, edging on corniness–the dialogue of the children in the scene where Bleek Gilliam, the main character played by Denzel Washington was a child, the overly studied and propped shots of “the hood” that would even be too much for a photograph, the very familiar moving dolly shots that were part of Spike’s trademark.
For some reason this time around they were endearing to me, maybe because it was a woeful reminder that there is a severe absence in trademarks or style in today’s Black Cinema. There are some up and coming directors that are notable, to be sure, but none of them have established a familiarity of like, say, a Spike, Tim Burton, or Wes Bentley. Earnest Dickerson, the cinematographer on this film, was also on top of his game here–the colors, the crisp, professional look of the film, the surreal atmospheres, the intimacy of the jazz club, the way he made everyone look so lush and beautiful…even Spike almost had a handsome look in this one.
I got lost in the beauty of the movie, and wondered why I never crushed on Denzel back in the day. When I worked for The Studio That Will Henceforth Remained Unnamed, Denzel’s production offices were right downstairs, and I was never even remotely curious. After viewing this film, I wondered for the rest of the day what planet I must have been on….yes, he was deserving of the sex symbol hype he garnered in the 90’s–Denzel was hot as fish grease on the sun in this.
If this film were made today it would do gangbusters–the different moods of the film, from brooding, to comedic, to romantic flow very well together. The storylines–Bleek’s sometimes acrimonious relationship with his right hand and sax player Shadow (Wesley), the shenanigans and gambling issues of his manager, Giant (Spike), the two timing love relationships that he had with his women, Clarke (Cynda Williams) and Indigo (c’mon, really, Indigo?) played by the one mega-weak link in the film (besides Cynda’s anticlimatic “big” singing debut), Joie Lee, Spike’s sister…the storylines mesh and never overwhelm each other.
I understand Spike has love for his sis, but I believe this would have been an infinitely even better film if a stronger, or at least more interesting actress would have been cast in her role. Joie’s personality (and I use that term loosely) seems to fade into the background; her look is different and while attractive in it’s own right, is not particularly big screen worthy. In her love scenes with Denzel she has zero sex appeal–she made kissing on him look like a chore…what was up with that? Maybe she was uncomfortable with her brother shooting her that way…if that was the case, someone really should have let the Assistant Director step in.
I must admit, because of the dearth of interesting Black film (interesting to me, anyway) I have found that lately, rewatching film that are 10, 20, 30 years old, that I have a much deeper appreciation for the work, time, and creativity for movies such as this one. Mo Betta Blues has moved up more than a few notches in my book–if you haven’t seen it, rent immediately–if only to reminisce on the comedic stylings of the late Robin Harris, the house comedian in the jazz club and to enjoy the jazzy score. Here is the trailer: