Month: June 2016
Brazilian Dream Team — Möeller & Botelho (Part Three): Celebrating 25 Years of Making Beautiful Musicals Together
Time to Remember…
A lot has happened in Brazil these past few months. Why, the headlines of the major news organizations are filled with the goings-on from below the equator. The problem is they haven’t been on the positive side of things, if reporters and media pundits are to be believed.
From the political crisis involving President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment proceedings to the worst economic downturn in nearly a century, Brazil has been reeling from a plethora of terribly bad to steadily worsening bulletins.
Unemployment is up, while GDP is down. Despite claims to the contrary, the Zika virus continues to worry athletes and participants of the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympic Games; while the threat of bacterial infections has raised concerns with World Health Organization officials over the growing unsanitary conditions found in Rio’s Guanabara Bay.
Add to this the increasing climate of violence due to widespread police killings; the mind-blowing and ever-expanding corruption scandals at all levels of government; the shortage of available housing brought on by the massive number of evictions from Rio’s poorest districts; delays in construction and infrastructure projects that have led to cost overruns and overly optimistic projections of a return on the government’s investment.
All these factors have contributed to the disquiet and unrest that have gripped the Brazilian nation for well-on two years now.
Despite the gloomy forecast, there remains one bright spot — an oasis in the desert of political and economic instability — and that is, the continuing esteem Brazil’s musical theater has been held in by the paying public. It’s as if those MGM wartime musicals had been recreated strictly for the Brazilian market, in the way they used to divert audiences from the horrors of real life.
Today, this has been made possible by the presence of two uniquely talented individuals.
I’m referring, of course, to the Brazilian Dream Team, that dynamic duo of the Rio stage, the “Kings of Musical Theater”: director, writer, costume and set designer Charles Möeller and musical director, translator, adapter and lyricist Claudio Botelho.
I’ve given extensive coverage to Charles and Claudio’s efforts in this vein ever since I began corresponding with the “Boys from Brazil” back in October 2010, and regularly after I had met them in Manhattan in September 2011. Their work, in particular a remarkably entertaining and thoroughly absorbing theater piece named 7 – The Musical, left no doubt they were on the cusp of international stardom.
It happened that at the end of December 2015, Charles and Claudio celebrated their 25th season together as working partners and business associates. In recognition of their hitting the quarter-century mark — and in expectation of bigger and better productions on the immediate horizon — the pair granted a year-end interview to Rio de Janeiro’s Globo News.
After perusing their comments and listening to the enthusiasm they appear to express when discussing their chosen profession, I’m sure readers will agree that with Möeller and Botelho, the sun will always come out on their shows — if not tomorrow, then the day after.
And the day after that and the day after that … And boy, do we need it now!
Recounting the Duo’s Success Which Led to 38 Hit Shows
One is sarcastic and self-contained. The other is open and expansive. The very different and quite opposite personalities of these two gentlemen prove that Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho were born to complement each other as they embarked on a direct path to success.
They’re celebrating 25 years of a professional partnership that has borne such marvelous fruit as Cole Porter — He Never Said He Loved Me and Spring Awakening. There have been nearly 40 works signed off by the team that has also given birth to numerous other partnerships in their field: iconic actors and actresses, as well as those they have seen rise to stardom.
Here is the most recent conversation with this accomplished Carioca twosome that has become a reference point in the genre of musical theater in Brazil.
Charles Möeller: The secret of a professional relationship is in knowing when to pick your battles. The argument is the most beneficial thing that exists in a relationship because it can determine who gets the last word. When you realize there’s something bigger at stake and come to believe that it’s really worth fighting for … then the argument can only make it better. Friction is what moves us to action and causes us to accept these differences of opinion. We’re two regular guys who enjoy a good fight! Anybody who stands next to us can’t believe what they’re witnessing! You’d think we will never be able to look each other in the eye; but five minutes later we’ll act as if nothing’s happened (laughs).
Claudio Botelho: In the past we would argue almost to the point of coming to blows (laughs). Knowing how to fight is the secret, no doubt about it. If one side is right and the other side is wrong, the end result will demand at lot from us both: we always have to prove we’re right. What makes me the happiest guy in the world is the recognition we get from our work.
Charles Möeller: We met each other as soon as I moved to Rio de Janeiro, in 1989. I was performing in a soap opera called Mico Preto (“Black Monkey”), playing Miguel Falabella’s son, who was then directing the play Um e Outro (“One and the Other”) in which Claudio was part of the cast. I attended an open rehearsal and, as soon as we started talking about musicals, we identified with each other. He was already an expert on the subject and had this goal in mind of an artistic career, while I had just left the company of Antunes Filho and had an aesthetic affinity with the genre. There was a meeting where I provided the stage pictures for a musical and Claudio provided the songs. Duos need to play off one another; those that don’t usually backfire. The neat thing is to be different.
Claudio Botelho: Musical theater is basically a craft made for twos and threes. No single person can go it alone. We only succeed because of one another. When we first met, I realized I had found someone with the same reference points as I had. It was extremely rare for someone my age to have seen the same movies as I had. We had so much love for musicals that, from one day to the next, something clicked. I thought: there’s no way we can do this [type of thing] here [in Brazil] (laughs)! I wanted to show people what I loved the most about musicals; I wanted to share with them what I found so amazing about them. I get excited when I can finally convince the public of this. My greatest pleasure is to sit in the audience and see the place go wild with what we’ve brought to the stage.
Reference to Type
Charles Möeller: We’re obsessed with the genre. It’s not a passing fancy with us, nor are we following the demands of the market. What motivates me to want to do musicals even today is the same motivation I had from the beginning: that the show transforms me and takes me out of myself. We strive for the professionalization of the genre, and lavish it with great technical care. In that way we become a brand.
Claudio Botelho: We changed the type of public that goes to musical theater, which used to be a much older crowd. The generation that watched our show Cole Porter, which really lifted us to success, doesn’t go to the theater anymore. It was Spring Awakening that brought younger audiences to the theater and exposed them to the genre. Our main focus, then, became entertainment for the whole family. We concentrate on the needs of the market, on what the competition has to offer, but without setting aside artistic quality.
All Work, All the Time
Charles Möeller: I have my favorites, but each piece I present takes such a huge chunk out of my life that I always feel the last play I work on is the one that best reflects who I am at the time. I still want to work with so many artists. I love to call on unusual people to partner with, and they end up becoming quite close. My dream is to work with Fernanda Montenegro. I also admire the work of Domingos Montagner and that of Fernanda Torres.
Claudio Botelho: It’s that old cliché of asking which child do you love the most (laughs)? The most important “child” of our career was, curiously enough, the one that made the least money: ‘7.’ It was our creation, one that garnered many awards, but the public wanted to hear more familiar tunes. Still, it was an important benchmark in our history. I, too, dream of working with Fernanda Montenegro and feel this can happen at any moment.
Charles Möeller: Next year  we’ll present an adaptation of the movie The Apartment, in the musical Promises, Promises with Marcos Veras and Maria Clara Gueiros. In the second half of the year we’ll be bringing Pippin to the stage, with a huge cast of unknown performers!
Claudio Botelho: I’m certain that Pippin will bring the same audience that saw Spring Awakening to the show. In addition, we’ll be releasing the film Os Saltimbancos Trapalhões (“The Bandit Stooges”), and we just bought the rights to the movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, which has been adapted for the theater. We’ll be responsible for the world premiere showing!
By Globo Theatre, December 25, 2015
(Translation by Josmar F. Lopes – Copyright © 2016)
The familiar and faintly comforting sound of Leo the Lion — MGM’s symbol of quality and excellence in motion picture arts and science — opens what was to have been a formula-B programmer. Instead, the Hollywood studio that gave larger than life presence to such icons as Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and dozens more had wisely invested its money (and know-how) in an out-of-this-world science-fiction epic.
The forerunner of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Terminator, and other big-screen spectaculars, 1956’s Forbidden Planet (the original title was Fatal Planet) emerged head-and-shoulders above the usual bug-eyed monster movie of the fifties. Though not the first of its type to be released — 20th-Century Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, RKO’s The Thing (from Another World), and Universal’s This Island Earth preceded it by several years — Forbidden Planet was certainly the most prestigious in terms of budget, size, sets and production values. It was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s premier excursion into the realm of outer space.
Based on characters found in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the story was conceived by Irving Block and Allen Adler. Novelist and scriptwriter Cyril Hume shaped the effort into a satisfying screenplay, combining elements of classical mythology, Freudian pop psychology, and author Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics (from his collection of I, Robot stories, first published in December 1950) in order to relate an interplanetary tale of man’s hubris in the face of forces beyond his control.
Forbidden Planet formed its core narrative around Professor Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), a brainy philologist who has been “stranded” on the planet Altair-IV for the better part of two decades. Left to his own devices (and with the aid of a so-called “Big Machine” left there by its former inhabitants), Morbius has learned to harness the planet’s elemental force so as to set up a private domain for himself and his comely daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), or Alta for short.
When an investigating United Planets Space Cruiser, headed by the straight-laced Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen), invades his pet paradise and attempts to take him back to Earth against his not inconsiderable will, Morbius unleashes this planetary force in true mad scientist-gone-amok fashion.
Followers of the genre have marveled at the film’s depiction of the Krell, an advanced alien civilization that, technologically as well as intellectually, was a million years ahead of humankind. Morally and ethically, however, they were as burdened by secreted bouts of lust, power and revenge as man himself had been. Despite never being seen, viewers came away from the picture knowing as much if not more about the wonders of this incredible race of beings as they did the all-too-fallible humans.
Roar of Approval
Starting things off with the lion’s roar — a harbinger of the bellowing Id monster that will take center stage as the story progresses and unfolds— is a masterstroke of foreshadowing and anticipatory plot devices. Movie critics and industry insiders have long pointed up the similarity between these two creatures. When the film is glimpsed in one uninterrupted sitting, Leo and his Id counterpart provide a neat “bookend effect” to the inevitability of events as they begin to take shape.
The creepy “electronic tonalities” by Louis and Bebe Barron, standing in for what would have been a full-blown orchestral score, distinguish this feature from earlier low-budget entries. It may even have been the first documented instance of cinematic “white noise.” Nevertheless, the use of the exotic-sounding theremin in the soundtracks to Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, the aforementioned The Thing, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein no doubt cleared the path for studio head Dore Schary to green-light the Barron’s avant-garde sound project for admission into Forbidden Planet’s world.
Les Tremayne, a mainstay of many a sci-fi outing from the genre’s peak period, provides the introductory voice-over lauding the discovery of hyper-drive and light speed technology, which led to the inevitable “conquest and colonization of deep space.” This line of thought, of man extending his reach outside his current capacity and into the farthest regions of the universe, would be incorporated into visionary producer Gene Roddenberry’s idea for the TV series Star Trek and its crew of intrepid explorers.
Speaking of which, the C-57D space cruiser’s all-male crew — “eighteen competitively selected, super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6 years” — has been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days, not exactly the kind of circumstance that would be conducive to the presence of a long-legged blonde gamine, but there you have it.
Just as the cruiser enters Altair-IV’s oxygen-rich atmosphere, science officer Chief Quinn (Richard Anderson) receives a radar transmission from the cryptic Professor Morbius. As the only surviving member of the Bellerophon expedition of 20 years prior, Morbius talks in evasive circles around the insistent Commander Adams. Indignant at first with the officer’s stated purpose, Morbius grudgingly agrees to provide landing coordinates for the craft. At the same time, he washes his hands of all culpability for what might befall its crew, a vague allusion to something far more sinister.
We discussed at the outset the so-called mythological aspects of the plot, which start to make steady inroads at the mention of the name Bellerophon, the ship that brought Dr. Morbius, his future wife, and the other members of his party to Altair-IV in the first place.
In Greek mythology, Bellerophon was a mortal who had once been favored by the gods. He slew the dreaded Chimaera and even tamed the fabled winged horse Pegasus. But pride and arrogance took over his persona, so much so that he attempted to gain immortality by riding Pegasus straight up to Mount Olympus, the playground of the gods. Zeus, the head god, sent a gadfly to sting the steed, causing Bellerophon (à la Icarus) to fall ingloriously back down to Earth. He spent the rest of his days as a wandering cripple in the manner of King Lear.
With this back-story in mind, the cruiser lands on a barren wasteland; its surface bereft of “cities, ports, roads, bridges, dams” — in short, any recognizable structure indicative of a thriving society. The scenery is a veritable facsimile of a Salvador Dali-landscape. No sooner does the crew disembark when it is confronted with the sight of a distant vehicle hurtling at supersonic speed. The driver of the vehicle is none other than Robby the Robot, a paradigm of man’s impulse to manage his surroundings by creating an artificial being — a mechanical Guy (or Gal) Friday, if you will — with extraordinary intelligence and superhuman strength, as well as highly refined social skills.
Robby’s soothing voice (belonging to actor Marvin Miller) and cultivated air of sophistication give Commander Adams the impression that all will be well. Agreeing to be escorted to the doctor’s residence, Adams boards the vehicle, taking with him Lt. Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly) and Lt. “Doc” Ostrow (Warren Stevens). As the men approach the abode, they are coldly greeted by Morbius, who stands in shadows inside the doorway — an elusive, solitary figure determined to plow on with his research despite the intruders. His intention is to show how safe and secure he’s been without the aid of outside interference.
After lunch, Morbius decides to demonstrate a bit of the Robot’s abilities, including his “absolute selfless obedience” to orders — except, of course, when they clash with Robby’s built-in safety mechanism whereby he is forbidden to harm a human being.
When pressed for details as to the whereabouts of his shipmates, Morbius explains their absence: one by one, they succumbed to an interplanetary force, “some devilish thing that never once showed itself.” He and his wife, the late Julia Marsin, remained immune to its influence. The others, however, were torn limb from limb and the Bellerophon vaporized upon takeoff.
Despite Morbius’ earnest yet awkward attempts at reassurance, the men remain jumpy and ill at ease, particularly when he activates the steel shutters that loudly surround his home.
The Pause that Refreshes
It’s at this point in his remembrances of bygone times that a graceful gazelle named Alta appears. Standing motionless in the entranceway, she calls to her father in a seductive tone. Immediately, Alta commands the undivided attention of the three visitors, one of whom (Lt. Farman) stumbles over himself in offering her some refreshment. Even though story-wise we are three centuries into the future, the men’s actions around this vision of loveliness — especially that of Lt. Farman — is typical of 1950s male behavior. One should mention his over-eagerness to be of assistance.
Since this is Alta’s first (ahem) experience with others of her race, Farman’s conduct goes completely over her head, which both amuses and perturbs her parent. Morbius is forced to admit to Adams and Ostrow the need to take his daughter back to Earth for her “natural development.” Ostrow agrees: “I should say fairly soon too.” The philologist’s patriarchal realm, a virtual Mount Olympus in miniature, has been encroached upon by these three “very fine exceptions” of Homo sapiens, only one of who will get to first base with his virginal child.
Stepping away from the others, Farman tries to get a leg up on his commanding officer by convincing Alta that Adams is a notorious space wolf “known throughout seven planetary systems.” Shaking his head and wagging his finger at her, Farman warns that, “Any girl or woman who lets him get her alone, anywhere,” is asking for trouble. Alta is intrigued, but concurs with his findings by catching the fire in Adams’ eyes. No such fire in Farman’s eyes, of that she is sure. Farman takes offense at this slight and insists he’s not entirely harmless.
At that moment, Quinn checks in to view the surroundings. A wolf whistle escapes from his lips as he spots Alta’s mini-skirted form. “Knock that off,” orders Commander Adams. It’s apparent to dad (and to us) that Alta is as enchanted by these “unbelievable” specimens as they are with her. She falls especially hard for Adams, the de facto leader of the group. When the officers take their leave, Alta gives the commander a long, hard look.
Until now, the conversation has been informal and routine, albeit tense — that is, if one takes into account the commander’s quite natural suspicions about the fate of the Bellerophon’s crew. The few references to the lady of the household come from Ostrow, who inquires as to whether she’s at home today. Morbius offers a rather dry response: his wife died six months after the others, only of natural causes. Ostrow then remarks that he thought Robby evinced some “very charming feminine touches,” hence our Guy/Gal Friday designation and sci-fi’s first ever asexual/bisexual artificial being.
The introduction of Alta into this all-male equation, a transitory disruption to the status quo, changes the balance of power from Morbius to his daughter. The discussion promptly shifts from domesticity as a topic — already touched upon in Ostrow’s observation about the Robot and in Morbius’ demonstration of the handy “dispose-all” unit (“A housewife’s dream,” in Ostrow’s interpolation) — to playfulness and innuendo, taken one step further by Farman’s libidinous interjections.
Through visual and verbal cues, i.e., sideways glances, whispered asides, and furtive gestures, the atmosphere becomes charged with sexual tension; the temperature in the room has been elevated, too, by several notches. The sense we have of the situation is that a conflict will arise by Altaira’s attendance — a conflict that will bring about a cataclysmic cost to all concerned.
Love Ain’t Such a Splendored Thing
If possession is 9/10ths of the law, as they say, then Adams may be out of luck. For, in the ensuing scene where Altaira visits the cruiser’s landing site and casually wanders off with Farman behind some jagged rocks, the commander cannot take his eyes off her. He is barely able to carry on with his duties as skipper, much less pay attention to Quinn and the others.
In the meantime, the Cook (Earl Holliman) provides some comic relief with his mechanical straight man, Robby. He has the Robot sample his last bottle of bourbon, a potable token of an “advanced” culture wallowing in the most basic of human weaknesses. Robby promises to run off 60 gallons of the “stuff,” thus contributing to Cookie’s habit of imbibing while off-duty.
This sequence highlights one of the many nods to a once-acceptable social practice of the 1950s, that is, of getting smashed until there’s no tomorrow. Later, when Cookie is reported as having been “falling down drunk” on the hooch that Robby provided him, his excuse is that he and the Robot were together the whole time the ship was being attacked (a nod to “cordial interplanetary relations, you understand”), a tidy little alibi.
Returning to our couple, we find Farman locked in an embrace, trying to instruct Altaira in the healthy art of kissing and hugging. “All the really high civilizations go in for it,” he insists. Just the thing to stimulate the system, and earn the enmity of his commanding officer! After several attempts at getting a rise out of the girl, a frustrated Farman (I would add, a sexually frustrated Farman) turns to her and asks if she’s giving him the “treatment” — in other words, “What gives with you, kid?”
In Farman’s company, she’s as cold as a mackerel. That’s about to change when Commander Adams re-enters the picture and decides to pull rank on his subordinate. A flustered Lt. Farman is dismissed, leaving the commander to sharply scold the oblivious Altaira for allowing a “space wolf like Farman” (branding the lieutenant with the same pejorative label Farman had earlier used on him) to take undue advantage of the situation, especially when she’s so scantily clad. “For Pete’s sake, go home and put on something … anything.”
Poor innocent Alta has a great deal of difficulty comprehending the cause of the commander’s anger. Her wits and childlike naiveté, which served her well in the preceding episode and in the comfort of her father’s living room — surrounded, as she was, by her “friends” (two white-tail deer and a full-grown Bengal tiger!) — have abandoned her under this new set of circumstances. To add to her turmoil, she has no idea what to make of Adams’ reaction, or how to deal with the newly-discovered emotions brewing inside her.
Equally disconcerted as well, Adams sends her off in even harsher language than he used on Farman. “Get out of here before I have you run out of the area under guard,” he barks, “and then I’ll put more guards on the guards!”
Back at the house, Alta repeats the commander’s rude comments to her father, who listens calmly to her outburst. He hears about how much she dislikes him, the look he gave her, and how he raised his voice at her. “What about?” Morbius inquires. She hasn’t a clue. “I was only trying to be nice about kissing the lieutenant,” she explains. Morbius raises an eyebrow. “How did the commander react to that?” Why, he was furious, is her reply. She never wants to see him again, ever! (Famous last words, or there would be no rest of the picture.)
The best she could do for now, Morbius counsels her, is to go to bed. Claiming he has some “unfinished business” in his study, he kisses his daughter on the brow and departs.
Alta then beams for Robby the Robot, who, as we probably know, is busy preparing those 60 gallons of booze for the soon-to-be-besotted Cookie. When he finally does appear, Alta demands that the robotic housemaid make a new dress for her, one with nothing showing. No long legs, no curvy waist, no perfect ankles, nothing but a nice, boring gown. “Radiation-proof?” Robby quizzes her. “No, just eye-proof will do.” Oh, and while you’re at it, spiff it up with some diamonds and emeralds. Gotcha!
Brimming with joy and excitement, Altaira hugs the Robot as if he were TV’s Hazel, the busybody maid with all the answers. She saunters off to bed, with nary a care in the world as to whether she’ll have a good night’s rest or not.
A Few Words to the Wise
When I was an adolescent, those silly smooching episodes would annoy me to no end. Like most kids my age and younger, I wanted the actors to get on with the show; to move past these nonsensical time-wasters and get to the good parts, i.e., the business with the mysterious Krell and, of course, the Id monster’s nighttime “visitation.”
Today, I am fortunate to have acquired a healthy dollop of patience where it concerns my movie viewing. In doing independent research for this film I learned that during the time of Forbidden Planet’s release and, afterward, when it was reissued to second-run cinemas, the “kissing scenes” were snipped for the kiddie matinees and, as luck would have it, for local television viewing where my family and I first caught it.
Had I known it at the time, I would surely have realized that these and all the early scenes, which take up the first third or so of the picture’s running time, provide the missing keys to understanding the story’s plot and theme: that of man’s inability to tame his bestial nature — his baser instincts of hate, lust, bias, greed, carnal desire, want, need, and survival at any cost; eventually, to rise above the species’ intrinsically destructive nature, that of “the beast, the mindless primitive,” and one day ascend to the heights the Krell had risen, only to fall back down again (like Bellerophon) as all mortals are wont to do.
In Altair-IV’s paradisiacal Garden of Eden, Commander Adams could be considered the “first man,” i.e., after his namesake Adam. He’s got a bad disposition, but that’s acceptable considering the pressures he has to face as commander. Young Alta, an offshoot of Altaira (the name itself derived from the planet on which she was born), could be the “first woman,” but one who has attained the “highest position” in the evolutionary cycle (ergo the name “Alta,” meaning the “highest”).
On the opposite end of the scale, Professor Morbius, the loving father and authority figure, is a deeply flawed individual. At this stage in the story, he seems a benign character — intelligent, yes, and by all means brilliant; but secretive and enigmatic, purposely withholding of vital information that, during the course of the picture, will be divulged to his visitors (and the audience members) only at crucial intervals.
Later in the movie, Morbius will state his personal credo “that man is unfit to receive such knowledge, such almost limitless power.” His scholarly opposite, “Doc” Ostrow, counters this argument with one of his own: “Whereas Morbius, with his artificially expanded intellect, is now ideally suited to administer this power for the whole human race.”
That remains to be seen …
(End of Part One)
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
Play for Your Supper
From the reverse racism and self-loathing of A Soldier’s Story to the lofty sentiments expressed in his Oscar® winning performance as Private Trip in Glory, Denzel Washington was on his way to forging an outstanding career as one of Hollywood’s most reliable — and versatile — screen actors.
He already won more hearts with honey than with vinegar in the delightful comedy-crime drama The Mighty Quinn. Now, Denzel (or “Dee,” as he was known to intimates) was steeling himself for the musical, verbal and romantic calisthenics of his next picture, Mo’ Better Blues from 1990.
Written, produced and directed by Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee, Mo’ Better Blues had the undeserved distinction of following his topical and highly controversial third feature, Do the Right Thing (1989). Suffering mixed reviews by comparison, Mo’ Better Blues is better known as the first of Denzel’s four outings (to date) with the Atlanta-born, Brooklyn-bred Mr. Lee. Their chemistry on and off the screen would, in years to come, result in what many critics would regard as both artists’ best work.
The action of Mo’ Better Blues revolves around Bleek Gilliam (Washington), a smooth-talking, easygoing trumpet player. Bleek, as descriptive a name as it implies, harbors a soft spot for childhood buddy Giant (the 5’6” tall Lee), who acts as his band’s no-account manager. Giant has a 24/7 gambling habit that lands him in hot water with the local bookie (Rubén Blades). Robbing Peter to pay Paul, he’s also in debt to two take-no-shit loan sharks named Madlock (Samuel L. Jackson, in a trial run for his role as hit man Jules Winfield in Pulp Fiction) and Rod (Leonard L. Thomas).
As in practically all of Lee’s work, there are multiple plot lines that vie for audience attention. However, the main thrust here concerns Bleek’s love life — or rather, the dilemma of being caught between two equally bodacious babes. Who will win first place in his heart? Is it the overly ambitious, light-skinned lounge singer Clarke Betancourt (Cynda Williams) who longs to join Bleek’s jazz band, or the earthier and more level-headed Indigo Downes (Joie Lee, Spike’s real-life sister)? Complicating matters to some extent is the unassuming Bleek’s rivalry with his quintet’s tenor saxophonist, the flashy Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes).
In line with both his earlier and later efforts, Mo’ Better Blues expands upon Lee’s love of sports and jazz. According to the director, he basically grew up in a jazz household. This is reflected in his father, jazz musician Bill Lee’s background score, as well as the participation on the soundtrack of trumpeter Terence Blanchard with the Branford Marsalis Quartet. Blanchard coached Denzel for months on end until he felt reasonably assured the star was capable of giving the appearance of someone who could go beyond holding his horn.
“When Spike called me to do this,” Blanchard told Los Angeles Times critic Leonard Feather, “it seemed like a tough assignment.” Fortunately for him, Denzel had prior experience with playing the piano in high school, as he demonstrated in The Mighty Quinn. He brought to the part his customary professionalism and preparedness. Blanchard even wrote out the fingering for all the tunes and the beginning portions of his solos. “I figured that actually teaching him to play the horn was going to take too much concentration away from his acting.”
In all, Lee used his familiarity with the genre to channel the well-documented friction that existed between two legendary jazz giants, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It was common knowledge that Miles, at the time the Kind of Blue album was being cut for Columbia — while simultaneously appearing in nightclub dates with “Trane” — would express his constant annoyance with the player’s longwinded, spiritually-motivated sax solos.
In Mo’ Better Blues, there’s a scene early on where Bleek steps backstage for a breather between sets. He runs into Giant, who takes him to task for allowing Shadow to “show off” by hogging the limelight in Bleek’s absence. Returning to the stage, Bleek gets back at both Giant and Shadow: with his dark shades and head bent low so as to commune more closely with his instrument, Bleek strikes an iconic Miles Davis-like pose as he purposely cuts short Shadow’s groove with a muted turn on his trumpet.
Talking with Washington about the film for the 2006 DVD edition of Inside Man, Lee acknowledged the existence of a downside to the jazzman’s lifestyle. He raised the issue of what happens when an artist devotes his entire life to his art; and then, when something unexpected happens, how it can prevent him from doing what he loves most. “What’s going to happen to [Bleek] when he can no longer play?” he queried.
Far be it for me to give away the game, but a situation eventually occurs — when Bleek steps in to save his manager from those vicious loan sharks — that changes the outcome for all concerned.
There are two scenes of urban family life in Mo’ Better Blues that bookend the picture. In the prologue, a young Bleek (Zakee Howze) resents having to practice his trumpet. He’d rather play ball with his friends than work endlessly on his scales. But Bleek’s iron-willed mother Lillian (Abbey Lincoln) insists he finish his scales before running off into the street.
In the final scene, Bleek’s son Miles (guess who he’s named after?), also played by Howze, is seen practicing his scales. His friends call out to him from the street, pleading with Miles to come and play. Only, this time Bleek’s son is allowed to scurry off and join his pals in their game. Consequently, the film ends on a poignant note. Lee relied on the same dialogue in each of these scenes, while ingeniously utilizing subtle gradations of tone, looks and shading that, true to the nature of jazz per se, were remarkably effective in delineating character.
Speaking of character, audiences learned a thing or two from Do the Right Thing about associating Lee’s eccentric personalities with their given names. The viewer is bombarded with an assortment of colorful monikers, among them Bleek’s pianist Left Hand Lacey (Giancarlo Esposito), bass player Bottom Hammer (Bill Nunn), drummer Rhythm Jones (Jeff “Tain” Watts, the only trained musician in the group), the aforementioned Shadow, Giant and Indigo, and Moe and Josh Flatbush (John and Nicholas Turturro), the Jewish nightclub owners.
Denzel mentioned, in that same 2006 talk with Lee, that he and his cohorts were free to ad lib more in Mo’ Better Blues than in other pictures. Indeed, the nearly all-male ensemble fires off one-liners faster than those rapid-fire bebop notes Bleek practices ad infinitum in his apartment. This scene is an excellent example of what Lee calls his trademark “money shot,” i.e., the background appears in constant motion around a stationary figure or two. Here, Bleek, motionless save for the twitching of his eyes and the constant flexing of his fingertips, goes over the music in his head, whereas the camera takes a 360-degree pan of the room behind him.
The extensive use of improvisation, especially backstage, drew the gentle ire of the late Roger Ebert in his initial critique of the film. Knowing that Roger had freely admitted to limitations in his knowledge of music (many if not all of his reviews hardly mention a movie’s score), we must take issue with his assessment. This is a jazz-based feature, is it not? And, as indicated above, improvisation is the life essence of jazz. It’s what makes the music original and unique. Too, it can be a hit or miss affair, with some numbers sounding fresh and others falling flat. But that’s the chance you take when you’re trying to be innovative. Incidentally, the rambunctious Robin Harris, who passed away months before the film’s release, delivers a particularly raunchy standup routine as the motor-mouthed comic, Butterbean Jones.
Lee’s eye for detail and economy of means and time (helped in large measure by longtime cinematographer Ernest Dickerson) contributed to the film’s most startling fantasy element: that of Bleek’s coitus interruptus, a virtuoso sequence in which he inadvertently calls Indigo by Clarke’s name, while doing the same for Clarke with Indigo’s name. The women take turns berating him for his slip-up. Meanwhile, Bleek stares blankly at one, then the other, then turns his visage toward the camera in glassy-eyed disbelief at the sheer inanity of his actions.
The issue of whether jazz was or was not the exclusive property of those who invented it is addressed in the bit where Bleek complains to Shadow that he doesn’t see his people appreciating their own music. “I see Japanese, I see West Germans in the audience,” he notes. “We will go to see some crossover created by other people, but we don’t come to see our own. It incenses me,” Bleek goes on, that “our own people don’t realize our own heritage, our own culture. This is our music, man.”
“That’s bullshit, man!” Shadow snaps back. “Out of all the people in the world, you never gave nobody else a chance to play their own music.”
“I’m talkin’ about the audience,” Bleek shouts right back at him. Shadow is indignant. “That’s right! The people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like. If you play the shit that they like, then people will come. Simple as that.”
And if Denzel Washington and Spike Lee continue to make movies that treat their subjects with as much dignity, respect, pride and affection as they did in Mo’ Better Blues, then audiences will continue to flock to see them. It’s as simple as that!
(To be continued….)
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes