By Steve Provizer
One of the show’s impressive accomplishments is that its creators managed to find musicians who could act.
I picked up the gauntlet and watched the eight episodes of the Netflix series The Eddy partly because of the promotion: I thought they were all directed by Damian Chazelle, who wrote and directed the films Whiplash and La La Land. Chazelle is something of a bête noire for jazz people, who’ve been highly critical of his approach to the music. I’ve sensed in his films an oddly ambivalent relationship to jazz, even a whiff of pathology that I wanted to investigate further.
It turns out that Chazelle directed only the first two episodes of the series. No doubt the producers knew that by linking the program with Chazelle, a well-known and critically lauded filmmaker, they’d drum up more interest than by hyping other Eddy directors, such as Houda Benyamina, Laïla Marrakchi, and Alan Poul. I wasn’t familiar with their work, but the show’s overall cinematic style has obviously been influenced by Chazelle. Every episode was written or co-written by Jack Thorne along with Chazelle, so the consistent look and sound of the series was probably foreordained.
Chazelle is associated with several cinematic techniques: highly kinetic camera movement and unusual placement, a collage approach to shooting live music that includes extreme close-ups. Some of the other Eddy directors moved the camera less, but the difference was negligible. The camera is almost always in constant motion: sometimes swooping or sweeping, sometimes just jittery. There are not always an overload of extreme close-ups, but they are plentiful enough. Some of the directors handled montages differently; some use music played live by the band to underscore actions elsewhere, others didn’t.
The plot centers on a Parisian jazz club, The Eddy, run by ex-pat black piano player Elliot Udo, played by André Holland. He brings together a band; the action is driven by his fight to maintain the group and his club. Other key players are the band’s singer, Maja, played by Joanna Kulig; Uto’s‘s daughter, Julie, played by Amandla Stenberg; Farid, co-owner of the club, played by Tahar Rahim; and his wife Amira, played by Leïla Bekhti. One of the show’s impressive accomplishments is that its creators managed to find musicians who could act. Holland is only called on to perform on the piano sparingly; we don’t see shots of his hands on the keyboard unless he’s just noodling. But all the other band members are professionals who play their instruments or sing. There is no bad miming (ghosting) that one sees so often in jazz films. The acting chores are light for the piano, trumpet, and sax players — but the bassist (Damian Nueva) and the drummer (Lada Obradovic) are given a lot to do and they do it well.
The locations are realistic, often gritty; the show goes out of its way to avoid the plush, romantic look of Paris featured in too many Hollywood movies. Apart from the nightclub, the action takes place on the streets of unfashionable districts, in messy apartments in high-rises, amidst construction sites whose walls are covered with graffiti, in a bleak hospital, and an anonymous-looking police station.
The bad guys are Russians, and they are plenty bad. The main thug is a jazz lover who knows Udo’s music. I guess this is supposed to add depth to the villain’s character but, for me, it fed into The Eddy‘s oddly ambivalent attitude toward jazz. More on that later.
A sub-plot concerns the struggle between Udo and his 16-year-old daughter, Julie. They are both deeply wounded, as is everyone in the series who gets any significant screen time. The parents of the protagonists are all deeply flawed parental figures: alcoholics, drug users, and/or domestic abusers. Julie’s stepfather attempted to molest her. We are asked to suspend judgment about a lot of selfish behavior because of the omnipresent trauma, but the ubiquity of the patterns made it hard for me to feel much empathy for any of the characters, though there were some genuinely moving moments between father and daughter. And others have some convincing emotional scenes.
The language spoken in the series is probably 55 percent French and 40 percent English, 3 percent Russian and 2 percent Arabic. Subtitles pop up whenever non-English languages are being spoken. It is slightly confusing for a while, but you get used to it pretty quickly.
So, now the music. Again, Chazelle probably guided the approach. The songs, written by Glen Ballard and Randy Kerber, range from swing music to ballads infused at different points with funk, R&B, pop, and Latin. The compositions are good, though not challenging. The musicians are very fine, technically accomplished players. There are a couple of times when the band gets an opportunity to play freer; on occasion we even hear the sax player move into avant-garde territory. But it is not part of the band’s usual musical palette. “Going outside” serves as a kind of jagged soundtrack to dangerous and/or violent episodes that are set outside the club.
The Eddy‘s trappings are hipper, but a few scenes resonate with old Hollywood musicals. One familiar trope is to use quiet piano noodling as a means to dramatize a character’s hidden depths. Also, there are times where a singer is at the piano and effectively sight-reads a tune fresh from the pen of Cary Grant’s version of Cole Porter. Sorry, I mean from the pen of Elliot Udo.
The most irksome aspect of the music stems from a contradiction. The Eddy wants to be realistic, and they tell us that what viewers are hearing was recorded live on the set. But the audio quality is too slick, it doesn’t reflect the ambience of the room where the band performs. The Eddy is a fairly large, cavernous-looking space; there is no sound-absorbing material that I can see. (For the old Bostonians among you — it reminds me of a slightly spiffier “Channel.”) The audio may have been recorded live in that space, but what we hear on the soundtrack is the result of processing by sophisticated audio equipment. It’s too good, too polished. This feels especially odd (and unrealistic) when we watch afternoon band rehearsals. In one episode, a New Orleans second-line-style group plays at a funeral party and — while I hope people party like that after I die –I know the sound wouldn’t be as impeccable as it is on this soundtrack. There are a couple of scenes with a band of young Middle Eastern kids who combine hip-hop with jazz elements. The music has been so processed it sounds like a recording.
On the other hand, there are a few times when Middle Eastern and Brazilian tunes are played by small groups in different locations and the director lets the music speak for itself. The audio reflects the ambient room sound — there is no prettying it up. At one point, the character of Sami’s Arabic grandmother sang in a ululating voice with guitar and doumbek. Here the music sounded unprocessed, raw and right.
Another part of the series’s approach to music invites analysis: the many times jazz is commented on in a pejorative way. An oblique example of this comes via the smarmy, violent Russian character, who says “All I care about is jazz.” Of course, he’s evil, but he also collects jazz vinyl and proudly holds up a copy of Udo’s live recording at the Village Vanguard. Then, there’s the moment when a record producer, who wants to poach the band’s singer, tells Udo: “It’s much better than the jazz I’m used to. It’s, ah, boppy poppy.” Sami, a smart, credible character who works for Udo and romances Julie, is asked how he likes the music and responds: “It’s good. They’re great…. But, maybe it’s a little too banal.” Finally, sometimes the band plays and, while there there are no obvious differences in quality from their other performances, Udo is unaccountably critical. This is meant to cue viewers, I suppose, that Udo has bigger “ears” and higher standards than the band. For me, it is arbitrary and insulting to the musicians.
The series’s ambivalence about jazz makes me wonder. What does the music mean to Chazelle (and series writer Thorne)? Does he love it but hate it? Hate it but love it? Chazelle seems uncomfortable with jazz. It’s like something that’s gotten under his skin that he is trying to deal with. An itch to scratch? Something to free himself of? If he thinks viewers won’t sit still for any performances that don’t sound pristine, then why process just the jazz and not all the music?
Are these complaints about things only a critic would care about? Mea culpa. But this level of cinematic attention to jazz is rare, and The Eddy gives us more to think about than your usual glossy jazz biopic. I concede that my prejudices make me less susceptible to the ways the filmmakers try to seduce the viewer and that my musical tastes are not satisfied, but Chazelle and his fellow creatives have whipped up a series about the music I love that stimulates my curiosity. Most viewers will probably find the show’s character development, plot twists, visuals, and music compelling, although my guess is that jazz-invested people won’t be as swayed. Personally, I am interested in seeing how the next episode of Chazelle’s acrid romance with jazz plays out.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subject, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.