After the success of Do the Right Thing, his film about race and politics, Spike Lee has returned to romance with Mo’ Better Blues, a film starring Denzel Washington as a horn player in love with two women. In the following excerpt from the movie’s companion book, Lee — with the help of writer Lisa Jones — talks about his inspiration for this project.
I always knew I would do a movie about the music. When I say the music, I’m talking about jazz, the music I grew up with. Jazz isn’t the only type of music that I listen to but it’s the music I feel closest to.
I saw Bird, Clint Eastwood’s portrait of Charlie Parker, in the fall of ’88. Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight, which was released two years before, was a slightly better film, if only because of saxophonist Dexter Gordon’s performance. Both were narrow depictions of the lives of black musicians, as seen through the eyes of white screenwriters and white directors.
Shortly after seeing Bird, I read that Woody Allen was planning a film about jazz. Now, wait a minute! First Clint Eastwood, and now Woody Allen! You know I couldn’t let Woody Allen do a jazz film before I did. I was on a mission.
One look at Bird and ‘Round Midnight told me what not to do. I realized that any film based on Charlie Parker’s life would be open season for criticism. Audiences bring excess baggage to films based on the lives of real people. Folks were bound to walk out of the theater saying, ”I knew Bird, and he didn’t hold his horn like that,” or ”He didn’t wear his hat like that.” I decided to stick with fictional characters, knowing it would give me more freedom.
In this day and age the idea of a jazz film almost always means a period piece. I knew that my film would take place in the present. I wanted to show that there are young jazz musicians out there today who are carrying on a tradition. At the same time, I didn’t want to do a film that was exclusively about jazz, though I knew the script would center on characters who were jazz musicians.
Before I wrote one word of Mo’ Better Blues, I knew I wanted Denzel Washington to play the lead. In the fall of ’88, Denzel was starring on Broadway in Checkmates with Ruby Dee and Paul Winfield. I went to see the play a couple of times. The minute Denzel appeared on stage, the women in the audience started to scream. Not only was Denzel a great actor, he was a legitimate matinee idol. I wanted to write a role for Denzel that black women were waiting for him to play. He has done a number of important co-starring roles in films like A Soldier’s Story, Cry Freedom, and Glory, and he has played a leading man in The Mighty Quinn. But he still hadn’t done a bona fide romantic lead. Mo’ Better Blues would be his chance.
So, I had my foundation. It would be a jazz film, set in a contemporary context, with fictional characters and Denzel Washington as the leading man. I took notes from Christmas ’88 until early April ’89, then wrote the first draft.
While taking notes for the script, I read Beneath the Underdog, the autobiography of jazz bassist/composer Charles Mingus. Though the book didn’t influence the content of my film, I did like the title, so I gave that name to the jazz club. Around this time Malaika Adero, my editor at Simon & Schuster, passed me a copy of the advance galleys of Miles: The Autobiography, written with Quincy Troupe. The book helped put me in a jazz mode.
Mo’ Better Blues is not a love story. I find love stories corny, and I try not to make corny movies. This is a film about relationships: Bleek’s relationships with his manager, his father, his band, his two friends, and his music. I decided to call the film Love Supreme, after jazz giant John Coltrane’s famous album A Love Supreme. It’s a very spiritual work and I used it as inspiration for the film. The love in A Love Supreme goes beyond romantic love. It’s love for God and the human community.
The reason we couldn’t use the title Love Supreme had to do with profanity. John’s widow, Alice Coltrane, is very religious. To woo Alice, I cut out the profanity — curse by curse. I sent Alice three different versions of the script. The last one was practically profanity-free. My grandmother would have been proud. I got a call from Alice’s lawyer, who said that as long as one profane word remained, Mrs. Coltrane wouldn’t grant us the title. That was it, end of discussion. The next day, all the profanity went back in.
When it became evident that I wouldn’t be able to use the title Love Supreme, I began to think. There must be a million expressions for making love. Number one on my list is ”the mo’ better.” What about Variations on the Mo’ Better Blues? It sounds like the title of a jazz composition. After much prodding from Universal chief Tom Pollock, my father, and friends, I shortened it to Mo’ Better Blues.
Besides Denzel Washington, I wrote the first draft of Mo’ Better Blues with a few other people in mind. I knew my sister Joie would be Indigo, the woman Bleek eventually marries. I knew Bill Nunn would be Bottom Hammer, Bleek’s bass player. Butterbean, “Beneath the Underdog”‘s resident comedian, was always Robin Harris. I wrote the role of Giant, Bleek’s manager, for myself.
Mo’ Better Blues went through two drafts. The first draft of a script is a sketch for me. I don’t get the story all at once. By the second draft, I know much more about the characters, and I can start filling in the blanks. For instance, I love films that complete a full circle. I decided early to begin Mo’ Better Blues with young Bleek practicing his horn. It didn’t come to me until much later, though, to end with Bleek’s son Miles practicing his horn.
I didn’t feel as strong about the first draft of Mo’ Better Blues as I did about Do the Right Thing. In one sense, the script seemed much more conventional than any of my other films. I knew, though, that the way we shot the film would be anything but conventional. That’s what makes Martin Scorsese such a great filmmaker. Read the script for any of his films, then go see the movie. It’s not the words on the page that make his films so compelling, but how he chooses to illustrate them.
I bought a bunch of photography books on jazz during preproduction to help me think about the images I wanted to bring to the screen. This is something I always do before I shoot, go through picture books and magazines, see movies. It helps me piece together the look of the film. However, the look of Mo’ Better Blues didn’t crystallize in our minds until almost two weeks into shooting. One thing we were sure about all along: We didn’t want to shoot the entire movie in a dark, smoky hole-in-the-wall jazz club. There was going to be room to breathe in this film.
Universal liked the script, but Big Cheese Tom Pollock was leery of the jazz milieu. He used the low grosses of Bird and ‘Round Midnight as bargaining chips in our budget negotiations. But once the people at Universal started to see dailies of Mo’ Better Blues, all the comparisons with low-grossing jazz films stopped. They were pleased with what they were seeing whenever we sent them footage, which wasn’t often. More important, they saw the film as a potential money-maker. They haven’t mentioned Bird or ‘Round Midnight since.
I didn’t make this film out of some lofty mission to bring jazz to the masses. If people are exposed to jazz through this film, that’s wonderful. I hope that A Love Supreme sells two hundred thousand more copies because of Mo’ Better Blues, but ultimately that’s not the reason I made this film. This was simply the film I had in me at the time.