How do you follow up a film like Do the Right Thing? A film that Variety, the New York Times, the American Film Institute, and the National Society of Film Critics – to name only four such publications or organizations – call one of the greatest films ever made? And even if that’s hyperbole to you, it appeared on most serious critics’ top 10s for 1989 and was called one of the best films of the 80s by both Siskel and Ebert, among others. So how does one follow that? Well, if you’re Spike Lee, you scale back a little to tell the story of a jazz trumpeter.
Denzel Washington stars as trumpeter Bleek Gilliam, the cool leader of a popular quintet that packs the house every night they play. His childhood friend Giant (played by Spike Lee) manages the group but is chronically unable to get more money for them (or to pay his gambling debts). Other members of the group – notably Wesley Snipes as Shadow Henderson as his sax-playing friend/rival – are fed up with Giant’s management, with being underpaid, and with Bleek’s complacent unwillingness to fire his friend and hire someone who’ll get them better work. Bleek’s so focused on making his music that he’s unwilling to commit to the mundane work of getting a new manager to get them out of a bad contract. He’s also unwilling to commit to either of the women he’s dating (played by Cynda Williams and Joie Lee). And the drama of the film – as pointed and focused as any Lee’s ever directed – starts to spiral out of these conflicts. There are fights and ego battles within the band, Bleek’s juggling of two women begins to take a toll, and Giant’s gambling debts start to endanger his health.
There are two remarkable scenes in the film that stand out: when things come to a head between Bleek and his women, Indigo and Clarke. Without giving too much away, the scene is cut between Bleek talking to Indigo and talking to Clarke, and at the center of it, the sometimes callous underpinnings of his devotion to his music comes to the fore. In another scene, Lee and editor Samuel D. Pollard again cut between two events – Bleek on stage and playing with intense verve and fire alternates with Giant’s confrontation with his bookie’s collection men outside in the alley. Both of them are as powerful, well-conceived, and brilliantly executed as anything Lee has ever shot. Additionally, the performances are superb from the entire ensemble, but special nods must go to Washington and Snipes for bringing to life both the tensions and friendships in the band, and to Cynda Williams and Joie Lee for creating two fully fleshed out, believable women as the objects of Bleek’s desire. And it should be noted that even though the film itself is really a drama about an artist wrapping himself up so deeply in his work that he can’t give the relationships in his life the attention they deserve, it’s still a jazz lover’s dream, filled with classics from Mingus, Miles, Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Cannonball Adderley and more. And that’s not even to mention the terrific original performances throughout by the Branford Marsalis group featuring Terence Blanchard on trumpet (performing as Bleek’s group).
Though Spike Lee has been unafraid of controversy throughout his career, it felt like after Do the Right Thing he might have taken a break from it with Mo’ Better Blues. It’s a perfectly sound artistic choice and he made the most of it with this excellent drama (and also returned right back to it with Jungle Fever immediately afterward).
- Patrick Brown