A cavernous restaurant on Manhattan’s East 18th Street is hopping. Some 350 extras crisscross the room, temporarily a jazz club, while a crew of 75 work lights, cameras and a curbside rain machine. Spike Lee is in control—filming his first movie since last year’s Do the Right Thing. Though that controversial inner-city drama drew only two Oscar nominations—”We was wobbed!” Spike yells—the slight can’t undercut the director’s well-earned Hollywood weight. Like a boxer who has begun to hit the big purses, Lee keeps adding to his entourage—and his budget. He made 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It for $175,000. With his fourth film, the $10 million Mo’Better Blues, he has graduated to the main event.
Spike still takes care of family. His sister Joie Lee, 28, who has had a role in each of Lee’s movies, co-stars in Mo’Better Blues, and his father, Bill, a jazz bassist and composer, is back again to score the film. And the family veterans are joined by dozens of interns. “When I was in school, I couldn’t get on film sets,” he notes. “We have opportunities here.”
Still, a sweep of the room shows at least one familiar face—Best Supporting Actor (Glory) nominee Denzel Washington—and one familiar face with a half-familiar name. The pencil-thin mustache and flashy grin belong to a guy named Murphy, but it’s Charlie Murphy this time, brother of Eddie. Though Spike’s feud with Eddie has been well chronicled, the director does not indicate that Charlie’s presence represents a truce. “He’s the best person for the job,” he says simply. Charlie, 30, is following up a bit part in his brother’s Harlem Nights with a role as a bouncer in Mo’Better Blues. “I’m just a guy with a first name,” says Murphy the modest, who got acting lessons from Murphy the brash. “He worked with me,” says Charlie. “I was very—well, I’m not saying I’m great now—but I was terrible.”
Spike’s latest plot spins off Washington as a trumpet player named Bleek Gilliam, torn between his love of music and his desire for two women: an aspiring jazz singer (newcomer Cynda Williams) and a Harlem schoolteacher played by Joie. Spike plays Giant, Washington’s unsavory manager. “Bleek is my father’s nickname,” explains the director, 32, who is once again also writing and producing. “He would drag me to jazz clubs, so it makes sense that I’d do a film about jazz.”
The movie’s working title was Love Supreme, after the tune by saxophonist John Coltrane, but Coltrane’s widow, Alice, vetoed its use for a film that contained profanity. “Alice is a very religious person,” says Lee. So he renamed it Mo’Better Blues, which “means the nasty.”
If Mo’ Better Blues retains some of the R-rated tension of Spike’s Do the Right Thing, this time the heat is generated not by racism but by sex. “The audience may squirm,” says Lee. “The love scenes were tough,” confirms Washington, 34, adding, “I don’t take my clothes off, so if you see a backside, it’s not mine.” Joie took the nudity in stride: “When he said, ‘Okay, take off your top,’ I just did it. It’s not perverse.” But disconcerting—yes. “It’s the first time I ever saw my sister’s breasts,” says Spike, laughing wildly.
Williams, 23, also handled the passion parts with aplomb. “They’re tasteful,” says the Indiana native, “but when I think of going to see the movie with my parents and grandparents, it freaks me out.”
Though the heartland may blush at Lee’s latest opus, the people who created it remain passionately loyal. “I’ve never been on a film like this,” says Washington. “Usually it’s a hundred strangers. This is more like a club.” Club Spike, of course.
—Tim Allis, Sue Carswell in New York City