A musical drama about the life of a man and his trumpet, this film is an earnest tale that captures not only the unrest of the music business, but more particularly serves as a tribute to what’s been considered to be one of America’s most original art forms. Jazz was once the most prominent style of music in the United States, originating out of New Orleans in the early 1900’s (with influences dating back to the mid 1800’s with the abolition of slavery), as an improvised take on more traditional classical music with an emphasis on performance. Throughout the 20th century different variations of Jazz had spread like wildfire across the globe, yet as we drew closer to a new millennium the genre’s popularity had been surpassed by other musical interpretations (rap, rhythm & blues, rock & roll), to a point where it was in relative obscurity by the time a young filmmaker would dedicate a major motion picture to it. Growing up in Fort Greene with a Jazz musician for a father and teacher of arts and black literature for a mother, by the year 1990 Lee had the background and all the tools to give the world a history lesson on this forgotten art form, and with help from a tremendous cast he wrote, directed, and produced a story that delivers in more ways than one.
Denzel Washington stars as Bleek Gilliam in the first of four collaborations he’d share with Lee throughout his decorated career, and like most of Washington’s roles Bleek is inordinately talented and full of charisma. His handsome looks and smooth dialect is only the surface of his charm, as he’s a pure sensation on the horn and the leader of the Bleek Quintet that packs the house at a local nightclub in his hometown of Brooklyn. The band is made up of actors Bill Nunn, Jeff Watts, Giancarlo Esposito, and most notably Wesley Snipes who plays Shadow; the saxophone to Bleek’s trumpet. Together they work the room with music so admirable that it’s a wonder how Jazz ever left the charts to begin with, yet all the same the undeniable music and sold out audiences aren’t translating to financial success for the performers who are demanding more compensation. The turmoil is partially in thanks to the greed of the club owners Moe and Josh (played by brothers John and Nicholas Turturro), and Bleek’s unreliable manager Giant (played by Lee himself), who locked them into the bad deal and is unable to re-negotiate. As further attempts prove futile an inner conflict arises between Bleek and Shadow, as ego and women begin to divide the two musicians, leaving the audience to wonder if quality music is strong enough to overcome the nature of such a ruthless business.
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Throughout the film there are candid moments that capture the band in it’s essence, with dressing room dialogue that is effective in demonstrating the comradery and hostility that is common amongst all musicians, as creative minds aren’t likely to always share the same vision. As the band continuously laughs and argues about everything from grandstanding on stage to the authorization of women in the dressing room, it appears that the spoken words were never on script, yet instead were improvised to give an authentic feel to those critical moments of character development. It’s possible however that my interpretation is wrong and Lee did indeed write those discussions verbatim, yet in either event the delivery in those sequences is so natural that it feels almost too real to be acting. One particular highlight is when the men question whether Esposito's bougy girlfriend is black, spanish, or french, along with another humorous occasion when the band as whole teams up on Giant for always coming up short. Lee’s performance is particularly memorable as Giant’s ineptitude contrasts with Bleek’s talents and overall value definitively, this time begging the question if friendship and loyalty has any relevance in turning music into a viable career.
Without any further postponement it’s important to note that stellar acting and writing aside it is still the musical numbers themselves that have given this film a lasting significance. Composed (and performed) by famed Jazz musicians Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard, the music is all original records that would make devoted fans proud and new admirers intrigued about such a liberated artform that truly has no boundaries. From its uptempo make-sure-you-find-someone-to-dance potential to it’s soothing qualities that can help mellow the mood and lift your mind no matter the circumstance, Jazz can do it all with the perfect blend of brass over percussion. With that in mind it serves as the perfect score for a film about the complexities of art and the flaws of humanity, emphasized by the title track that happens to also be the film’s finest moment, with Bleek and Shadow harmonizing their horns so heavenly that you could never confuse the music for anything less than divine.
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Elsewhere Washington and Snipes actually lend their real voices to another record titled ‘Pop Top 40,’ in which the stage presence and vocal talents of the actors make you wonder if in another life they could have made a real career out of it. On the contrast however actress Cynda Williams is less than stellar in her performance of ‘Harlem Blues,’ yet that could have easily been by design as her character in the film is said to have marginal talent, despite her ambition to do whatever it takes to make it. All the same two other performances in the film are too good to go unmentioned, as comedic roles played by Charlie Murphy and Robin Harris are indisputably hilarious; the latter of whom is the most significant as the 36 year old actor tragically died from a heart attack in the months leading up to the film’s release - which in turn was appropriately dedicated to his memory.
In conclusion this film is a compelling exploration into the heart of a musician, and is a triumph for its tribute to the music itself. All together there is a healthy balance of drama, comedy, and of course great music that effectively illustrates the inevitable conflict once you clash a cut throat business with the purity of art. Yet to my bewilderment the critics didn’t seem to notice those true virtues of the film, but instead became obsessed with what they deemed were unfair characterizations of Jewish culture in the performances by the Turturro brothers. Apparently disappointed that the owners of the nightclub were driven by greed, Jewish organizations such as the Anti Defamation League criticized Lee for the stereotypical images and labeled the film as anti-semitic. In what I believe was a critical moment of much needed perspective, Lee rebuttled those claims by pointing out a clear contradiction, referencing how so much of Hollywood’s very inception was built off a misrepresentation of his own race and with flagrant malice and without contrition. He questioned why his peers weren’t being held to that same standard, and what it meant that only black directors had to work under an apparent microscope. However even more enlightening was Lee’s next statement, in which he set forth an important precedent for filmmaking and art in general:
"I stand behind all my work, including my characters, Moe and Josh Flatbush... if critics are telling me that all Jewish characters I write have to be model citizens, and not one can be a villain, cheat or a crook, and that no Jewish people have ever exploited black artists in the history of the entertainment industry, that's unrealistic and unfair."
Ultimately that quote defines an artist who was here for a purpose, as Lee has never compromised his integrity and vision in an effort to blend in, but instead has stood out for over three decades by illustrating stories that nobody else would tell. In time I hope the narratives attached to Lee are seen for what they really are, and one day his originality won’t be impulsively criticized but will instead be appreciated and honored for its historical and cultural significance.
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