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.