Mo' Better Blues Review
Mo’ Better Blues begins with a group of children asking the parents of young Bleek Gilliam is he can come out and play. No, says Bleek’s mother: he has to finish his trumpet lessons. Cut to the present, and Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) is a leading jazz trumpeter, and leader of the Bleek Gilliam quartet. Bleek has to juggle the attentions of Indigo (Joie Lee) and Clarke (Cynda Williams), the two women in his life, as well as keeping his band together – saxophonist Shadow (Wesley Snipes), pianist Left Hand (Giancarlo Esposito) and bassist Bottom Hammer (Bill Nunn). Add to that their manager Giant (Spike Lee).
Lee followed Do the Right Thing with Mo’ Better Blues, intended as a tribute to the jazz music he grew up with. (Lee’s father, Bill Lee, composed the score.) The original title was A Love Supreme, after the John Coltrane classic. It’s a character-led piece and as such seems less urgent than the more issues-led films that preceded and followed it – the latter being Jungle Fever. Somehow Lee seems disengaged, a feeling enhanced by the fact that he plays out the final credits with a song called “A Jazz Thing” which is actually nothing of the sort: it’s a rap by Flavor Flav of Public Enemy. The film is also far too long at two and a quarter hours.
There are certainly compensations. Musical performances are numerous, and that will be enough for jazz fans in the audience. Together with Ernest Dickerson’s warm-toned photography, this creates a distinctive mood. The film also goes a considerable way on the charisma of Denzel Washington, here making his first film for Lee, of four to date. (As an aside, Washington and Snipes learned to play their instruments especially for this film.) On its release, Mo’ Better Blues was seen as something of a disappointment, and it remains so. Lee would soon recover his form again, though, with his next feature, Jungle Fever.
Mo’ Better Blues is released as part of the five-film Spike Lee Joint Collection, taking up one side of a DVD-10 disc with Do the Right Thing on the other. The DVD is encoded for Region 1 only.
The transfer is in the original ratio of 1.85:1 and anamrophically enhanced and is very good. It copes well with Lee and Dickerson’s bold use of colour, blacks are solid and shadow detail fine. There are a lot of scenes in semi-darkness, or with stage lighting, and I didn’t see anything untoward. There are eighteen chapter stops.
Mo’ Better Blues just preceded the digital sound era, and was shown in cinemas with a Dolby SR (matrixed) sound mix. This is transferred to DVD as a surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0 track. The surrounds are mostly used for the music score and ambience, but dialogue is always audible and, just as importantly for this film, the music – both on-screen and on – sounds as it should. There are eighteen chapter stops. As with all the other discs in this set, there are no extras.
Mo’ Better Blues is minor but not uninteresting Spike Lee, though fans of Washington and of jazz music will have further reasons to see it. As it contains four other films along with this one, the Spike Lee Joint Collection is certainly good value for money.