'Mo' Better Blues': Backstage with Spike Lee and the Cast

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Multitalented filmmaker is back on the silver screen with his fourth summer hit

WITH all his classic signature components--good music, steamy love scenes, a great script and talented actors--Spike Lee is back on the silver screen with Mo' Better Blues, his fourth film in five years.

The movie is yet another showcase for the prolific filmmaker's multiple talents as a writer, director and actor. And for this one, which appears destined to be a summer hit, he's starring Denzel Washington in his first film role since winning the 1990 Academy Award for best supporting actor.

Mo' Better Blues is the story of how a young New York jazz musician, played by Washington, handles the joys, pains and frustrations of trying to balance his love of music with his love of two women. One of his romantic interests is played by Lee's sister, Joie Lee. The other is portrayed by Cynda Williams, who makes her film debut in Mo' Better Blues.

To the dismay of some and the delight of others, this film does not focus on the urban racism highlighted in Do The Right Thing. Nor does it focus on the poignant social issues explored in School Daze. But like Lee's 1986 debut film, She's Gotta Have It, Mo' Better Blues focuses on romance.

"Mo' Better Blues is about relationships," says the 33-year-old Lee during an interview at his 40 Acres & A Mule production office in Brooklyn. As usual, he is dressed in high-top gym shoes, jeans and a T-shirt. "It's not only about man-woman relationships but relationships in general--Bleek's relationships with his father and his manager, and his relationship with two female friends. Bleek's true love is music, and he is trying to find the right balance."

Spike Lee has a reputation for discovering fresh new talent, and Cynda Williams, the attractive 23-year-old Chicagoan who sizzles in the new film, is certainly the "discovery" of the year. "What I like best about filmmaking," says Lee, "is the opportunity to find young Black talent not heard of before."

Williams, a recent Ball State University graduate, got the part after waiting at Lee's office for three hours to see Robi Reed, the casting director. When Reed met her, she thought the aspiring actress was perfect for the role, for Reed had not been successful in her search for an "unknown attractive actress/singer from the Midwest." Lee, who compares Williams' talent and beauty to that of the legendary Dorothy Dandridge, also thought she was ideal for the part.

Lee says he wrote the script for Mo' Better Blues with Denzel Washington in mind. "I've always been a big fan of Denzel's and I have noticed how women love him," says Lee. "I went to see him in Checkmates on Broadway, and when he came on stage, all the women started screaming. So I started writing this movie for Denzel, the matinee idol, the sex symbol."

Lee says he wanted to do a jazz movie from a perspective that would not portray Black jazz musicians as stereotypical "drug-and alcohol-dependent." His father, Bill Lee, the jazz musician and composer, was also inspiration for the movie, which features several of the elder Lee's original compositions, as well as those of jazz giants such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis. To give authenticity to the performances, professional musicians--including Terence Blanchard and Branford Marsalis--tutored the actors and performed the music.

In addition to featuring Spike Lee movie regulars Bill Nunn and Giancarlo Esposito, Mo' Better Blues captures the last film performance of Robin Harris, whose provocative humor titillated audiences with his "Sweet Dick Willie" character in Do The Right Thing, and who starred in the more recent hit movie, House Party. Harris died of a heart attack after a performance in Chicago earlier this year.

Since his first film was released in 1986, Lee repeatedly has stirred controversy on screen and off. …