Mo' Better Blues (1990) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

"When all is said and done ... there's nothing else to do or say"

Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins


Two thumbs way up.

Scoop's comments in white:

I guess it is fair to say that Spike Lee is not just a black man who makes films, but is truly a "black filmmaker", in that his films specifically treat certain aspects of the black experience in America. The reason I make that distinction is that Lee has obviously given a lot of thought, perhaps even obsessed over, issues that the rest of us have never thought about, even if we are white filmmakers or other black men who make films.

Imagine the possibilities, if you will, inherent in a very dark-skinned man in a completely dark room wearing a white suit and a white hat. Bathe him in colored track lighting, and you can create the illusion of a green hat and suit walking around, like the invisible man. Now imagine a dark-skinned black woman and a light-skinned white woman standing side by side in a room. It is nighttime, so there is no sunlight to consider. Bathe the room in beautiful blue lights. The white woman still looks the same, except maybe that she might have eaten some clams during the Red Tide. The black woman's skin, however, now takes on a beautiful blue hue. She's a blue woman. You probably never thought about those things, and neither had I, but Spike has, and used them to create a dazzling array of ultra-cool effects. Imagine Denzel Washington with a polished trumpet and Wesley Snipes with a glistening sax. Add the right kind of cool shades. Dress them in the right colors. Put them in a dark, smoky nightclub with a dark backdrop. Put some shiny surfaces and small lights behind them. Bathe the room in blue light. It's magic. Now use some indirect lighting to light the backdrop in blue as well. Now change the indirect lighting and color the backdrop rose. And so forth.

What you have is a visual poem about the powers of light and darkness and their ability to create and transform moods. You have a jazz riff played out with lights and camera instead of a trumpet and a saxophone.

This film is among the most artistic and aesthetically brilliant I've ever seen. In addition, Lee and DP Ernest Dickerson use the camera in the same way that Michelangelo used a chisel to transform ugly chunks of rocks into beautiful hands and feet. They transform ordinary interiors into magical venues; they change an ordinary trumpet into an objet d'art, then they complete the metamorphosis by spinning the straw of mundane New York exteriors into a golden treasury of memories and evocative moments. Hey, I know that last simile was stretching it, but you have to admit that Spike does look a lot like Rumpelstiltskin. Spike and Dickerson always delight and amaze me with the way the use that camera - with their creative choices for the initial set-up of the camera angle in each scene, and then with the movement of the camera through the scene.

And it's difficult to argue with the musical choices. If you like the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Branford Marsalis, you are gonna go nuts over this biography of a trumpeter who plays that kind of music with a quintet in uptown jazz clubs.

If a movie consisted only of camera angles, camera movement, lighting, photographic composition, storyboarding, production design, interior locations, exterior locations, music, mood and atmosphere, this movie could be considered the Citizen Kane of the 90's. If you love New York City, progressive jazz/blues, and dazzling photographic presentation, this is your film, hands down.

Of course, there is more to a movie than that. There is a script. Storylines. Important themes. I'm not too sure those things should be weighted too heavily when evaluating this film, since it is akin to saying that the plot of Hamlet is kinda stupid, which it is, but who cares? But the script is the film's Achilles Heel. The great weakness of the film is that Lee's story is completely conventional. I didn't see anything new here that I haven't seen in earlier movies like Young Man With a Horn, except that the experiences are specifically filtered through the urban middle-class black experience.

In the opening scene, a young boy wants to play baseball but his mom makes him play the trumpet. He tells mom that he hates the trumpet. We see him next as an adult, and it is then obvious that he loves the trumpet, and values his music above his need for romantic love, over his need to fire his incompetent manager (played by Lee himself), and over his relationships with the members of his ensemble. We see that he's a good man. His incompetent manager has been his best friend since third grade, and he takes care of his friend. But as good as his intentions might be, his obsession with music and his loyalty to his friend are gradually isolating him from everyone else, and chopping off the legs of his existence.

This is not an "important" film like the ones that made Spike Lee famous. It doesn't hammer away on social themes; there's no activism; there's no politics; there's no social injustice. There aren't any white villains. There aren't any white heroes, either. It is simply a story about a man and his surroundings. It must generally reflect portions of the middle class black experience, and it must specifically reflect some of Lee's own loves and hates, but there's no attempt to change the world, or even to remind the world that it needs changing. It's just a story about people who love jazz and New York City, told by a filmmaker who loves jazz and New York City and making movies.


Cynda Williams shows her ample breasts in three different scenes in the widescreen DVD version. There is an additional direct look at her breasts in good light in the full screen version.

Joie Lee (Spike's sister) flashes one nipple very briefly.

There is also an extreme close-up of a baby being born.

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic

This movie received no Oscar nominations of any kind - not for the astounding lighting effects, the creative cinematography, the art design, or the A+ musical score. None. OK, I can see why it wouldn't be nominated as best picture. There's nothing so impressive about the script, and Spike Lee the actor is many levels lower than Spike Lee the director. But there's a lot of aesthetic achievement in this movie that should have been awarded, or at least nominated.

Given the facts I am a New Yorker, I like Miles and Coltrane, and I really admire dazzling filmmaking ... well, I pretty much loved it. Based upon those variables, your mileage may vary.

The art of Spike Lee:


Mo' Better Blues (1990) is a story both about Jazz, and about relationships. I enjoy Spike Lee's work in general, I think Cynda Williams oozes sex appeal, am impressed with the acting of Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes, and love Jazz. There was no way I wouldn't like the film about a trumpeter/band leader Bleek Gilliam (Washington), his gambling addict manager (Spike Lee), the saxophonist who is constantly trying to outdo him (Snipes), and his two girlfriends - Williams and Joie Lee.

The score was written by Spike's father, and many of the songs were performed by Branford Marsalis and his group. Cynda sings an amazing rendition of the WC Handy tune, Harlem Blues.

If you have seen this, any more plot would bore you, and if you haven't, go rent it. What more could you ask for? A great character driven drama, good acting, great music, and Cynda Williams' breasts.

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...

  • It grossed $16 million on a ten million dollar budget.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. Terrific movie. It is not just a black film made for black people. It is a heart-felt film made for people out of one man's experiences and loves and imagination. The characters are black, and their life is jazz, but that's only the backdrop. Although it is brilliant in so many ways, I said C+ because it isn't completely broad in its appeal. It will be very slow if you don't like the music of Coltrane and Marsalis, because the musical numbers are often played at full length. If you do like those guys and Miles Davis, it is heaven.

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