Mo’ Better Blues came out during the period when Spike Lee was pretty much unstoppable, and was his follow-up to one of his greatest films, Do The Right Thing. It’s a film that has kind of been forgotten in his body of work, and when you see it, that neglect becomes somewhat understandable. It lacks the anger you expect from Lee, and is instead a fairly straightforward film about jazz musicians and relationships.
Denzel Washington plays trumpeter Bleek Gilliam, who is the leader of his jazz group but who is being upstaged by his sax player, Shadow (Wesley Snipes). Spike Lee plays the manager of the group, who is also a betting man without much luck, so the loan sharks are eventually after him. It also deals with their relationships with the women in their lives.
The performances are all solid—nothing really can be said that’s bad about them. Washington could read the phone book and make it interesting, and it’s always good to see Wesley Snipes in a good film, because it’s just sad to see the VOD crap he is forced to do to pay his tax bills. Lee is fine as the manager, even though as always he is just playing a version of himself. Still, his on-screen appearances were a fun trademark of his earlier films, and certainly helped Lee to build himself up as a face and personality behind his films. Giancarlo Esposito, who most people now know from Breaking Bad, also features as the group’s pianist and as always, he is good. Sam Jackson also has a small role as one of the loan sharks.
The film was slightly controversial due to its depiction of the Jewish club owners, one of whom is played by John Turturro. Personally I don’t see it as being horribly anti-Semitic, but some did and the Anti-Defamation League got involved. Nevertheless, Lee stuck to his guns, said it wasn’t and refused to apologize.
The film doesn’t hold a candle to any of Spike Lee’s best films from the period, as he would follow it with Jungle Fever and Malcolm X, perhaps his masterpiece, within the next few years. Despite excellent cinematography from Lee’s constant early collaborator Ernest R. Dickerson, which is awash with neon blues, reds and greens, it doesn’t have a scene as impressive as the reveal of the Taj Mahal crack house in Jungle Fever or almost any sequences in Malcolm X. However, if you like Spike Lee, there is a good chance you will like this.