Gorgeous and deeply soulful jazz film by Spike Lee. I have watched it many times over the years and as I have become more obsessed with jazz over other forms of music, this film takes on new and deeper meaning. Can't be ignored, first and foremost, what a MASSIVE guiding spirit St. John Coltrane is to this film -- seriously, he is like a character in the film, to which the musicians essentially revere and worship. You may or may not pick up on it -- you really ought to since Trane's quotation is shown at the end of the film, A Love Supreme cover is blown up in Bleek's pad and shown constantly, Shadow is shown buying tons of Trane discs at the record shop, the entire closing montage runs over A Love Supreme, Bleek's mental breakdown after his beating leaves him delusionally jamming with Trane in his mind, Shadow is introduced as playing both soprano and tenor sax a la Trane, on and on...to understand this film is to get that Coltrane is its patron saint, just as he is to a large extent the patron saint of jazz musicians (and jazz listeners).
Why is Trane's ubiquitous influence so important to Spike's film? Consider Spike's protagonist, Bleek, whose problem until the third act has been selfishness. He is asked by Shadow at one point if his problem might be that the only music he can hear is his own -- ironically using music as a shield against emotional vulnerability in his intimate relationships, we see Bleek as a womanizer, caring little for how his two women might feel knowing he is two-timing them, ignoring their needs and desires. He also shuts down his bandmate Shadow's quite natural desire to develop his own music instead of nurturing it. Coltrane, from the prime of his career when A Love Supreme was cut in '64, until he was cut down in the prime of his life by illness in '67, had become a kind of benchmark for spirituality, love and intellectual thought in the jazz scene. He changed things quite a lot for the jazz community, and specifically Black jazz musicians, who saw in him a purity of spirit and progressive thinking which younger musicians who looked up to him sought to emulate. I don't think it is going too far to say that Trane was and is revered as the apex of Black Conscious Jazz Musicianship, Love and Thought.
Thus, I would submit that Spike Lee's Coltrane symbolism in Mo' Better Blues is not merely ornamental, and it is a mistake to overlook it -- it is central to the missing piece of Bleek's personality, since we get the sense that he is not necessarily a terrible person trying to hurt people. He just doesn't know how to love anyone, and has become a selfish person when we meet him. So he womanizes and carries on as a kind of narcissistic musician who uses people. It is only when his best friend and lackey gets him into hot water -- really, it is Bleek himself who gets himself into hot water, through a show of friendship in defending his friend, one of the few signs we see of him showing love for another person -- that he suffers a fall from grace, a physical beating that he takes which leaves him unable to play music. The one thing that meant everything has been taken from him, and life has brought him to his knees. Humbled, he spends a year essentially living through a mental breakdown, until he realizes he can no longer play music. Then, he finds out that it is only love that will actually save his sorry ass -- it is Indigo, his perfect loving mate, who he two-timed and debased before, from whom he will now need to seek love, forgiveness, mercy and refuge.
We finally see Bleek redeemed in the final act -- no longer a working musician, perhaps, but as close as we can possibly see him get to the spiritual ideals propounded by Coltrane in his music and ideas to be found in A Love Supreme and throughout his work. (The same ideas, ahem, behind Bleek's giant poster on the wall that he's been casually ignoring throughout the movie.) We see Bleek marry Indigo in a beautiful outdoor Brooklyn ceremony surrounded by loving friends and family as A Love Supreme is playing. They have a child, who we see come into the world to A Love Supreme. All the while, it is as if Trane himself is omnipresent in the film, participating in Bleek's life, finally nodding with approval as he looks down from the heavens. Before this montage, we had not really heard Trane's music; now, he is on full blast.
Coltrane made incredibly cosmic music with his wife Alice; they had a son Ravi who became a great tenor and soprano sax player like his father, in his own way. Likewise, Bleek and Indigo have a son, aptly named Miles, who we see at the end of the film learning trumpet -- just as we saw at the start of the film back in '69, bookended moms Abbey Lincoln (legendary jazz singer and Max Roach's wife) and Joie Lee yelling out the window at the kids -- deja vu! Classic.
One final point to note: Spike Lee's father Bill Lee scored this film -- Bill Lee was an amazing jazz bass player who played on a ton of fantastic records on the legendary Strata-East label in the early '70s, including a record called The Descendants of Mike and Phoebe: A Spirit Speaks - a family band project consisting of Bill, his brothers and sisters in a group named after their slave ancestors. One of the songs is called "Coltrane" -- the same gorgeous tune he recorded as "John Coltrane" with Clifford Jordan on Jordan's epic Glass Bead Games album for Strata-East.
The Trane love runs deep in the Lee family. This film feels a little like Spike Lee's love song to his father, to jazz, and to Coltrane.