Saturday, May 30, 2020

‘The Eddy’ blows hot and cold

Initially, The Eddy feels like less than the sum of its parts. The first two episodes of Jack Thorne’s Netflix series about a jazz band in Paris are entrusted to Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016). They’re shot by Eric Gautier, one of the best cinematographers working today. The leads are André Holland, indelible as the diner chef in Moonlight (2016), and Joanna Kulig, who gave a full-throttle performance for the ages in Cold War (2018). The music is by Glen Ballard, best known for producing the Alanis Morissette album Jagged Little Pill, and composer Randy Kerber (who also plays the band's pianist).

Yet, despite the beautiful grainy look and intricate unbroken shots, it doesn’t quite lock in. The band isn’t firing on all cylinders when we first see them – something bandleader Elliot (Holland), a former piano virtuoso, now a divorced American expatriate in Paris, pointedly mentions. It’s a bold move, starting with low-energy performances, hoping the viewer will notice the difference when the high-voltage ones come around. But it’s a while before the band really kicks into gear (for me, it was in the latter half of the second episode). There’s a bit of a Chazelle hangover too: Elliot admonishing the band is reminiscent of JK Simmons’ diatribes from Whiplash, and the idea of a struggling but driven pianist-composer isn’t far from La La Land.

Seven of the eight hour-long episodes centre around, and are named for, a different character (the last one is simply called “The Eddy"). The first, “Elliot", introduces its sour namesake; his daughter, Julie (Amandla Stenberg), just arrived from America; the six members of the band; the ebullient owner of the club they play at, Farid (Tahar Rahim), and his wife, Amira (Leïla Bekhti). We find out Farid’s somehow indebted to gangsters, and that Elliot fled his home country after the death of his son. There’s a violent incident and its aftermath. Even at an hour's runtime, that’s a lot to take in. It’s a relief, therefore, when the second, Julie-focused episode slows down somewhat and the characters come into sharper focus.

It’s in the third and fourth episodes that the series starts to cohere. This might have something to do with the passing of the baton to French filmmaker Houda Benyamina (her electric 2016 feature, Divines, is on Netflix). The show takes on a more European feel, with the American indie squabbling of Elliot and Julie replaced by different storytelling rhythms. There’s a long, beautiful passage dedicated to a traditional Muslim funeral, and a cathartic musical celebration afterwards. In the fourth episode, the band’s bassist, Jude (Damian Nueva), a junkie with a gentle, sad face, finds out his former lover is getting married. Impulsively, he offers to be a witness at her registration and later smuggles the couple into a fancy wedding where the band is booked. This leads to two of the best musical scenes in the film, neither of them jazz.

At the wedding, the band is asked to play the dance number "Elle Me Dit". In Chazelle’s hands, the scene might have remained an excuse to sneer at pop music, but Benyamina turns it into something joyous, a bit of cultural anti-elitism very useful in a series about serious jazz musicians. Later, in a restaurant, Jude sings his own composition for the couple, accompanied by a few patrons tapping on tables and shouting encouragement. Nueva, who’s from Cuba, is wonderful in the part – like the other band members, he’s a professional musician in real life.

The other two directors, Alan Poul and Laïla Marrakchi, can’t match the visual excitement of the Chazelle-Benyamina episodes. Their episodes are generally arresting when the storylines work (Julie’s adventures with Sami, one of her father’s employees; drummer Katarina’s miseries; anything to do with the band) and drag when they aren’t. With Elliot constantly putting out fires on the home front and trying to keep both the police and the mob at bay, Holland spends most of the series looking harried. He’s a subtle actor, the kind you can call on to show a tiny flicker of an unarticulated emotion – but perhaps the series needed a more blatant charisma for its central character. Kulig is a casting coup – a fine dramatic actor who’s also a singer – yet her Maja feels like an early draft of the many-shaded vocalist she played in Cold War (it doesn’t help that she’s saddled with Ballard and Kerber’s awful lyrics).

The Eddy is happily European – half the dialogue is in French, the opening title is “une série originale" and the closing credits have “réalisé par" and “avec" (I can’t decide if Julie being told Eid is “Christmas for Muslims" is a parody of American insularity or an explanation Netflix thought was necessary for viewers there). It’s also impressively multicultural, something which flows from the diverse makeup of the band: Polish singer, Cuban bassist, Croatian drummer, American pianist and horn players from Haiti and France. There’s a lot of potential here: winsome cast, talented players, a breadth of storytelling. With more consistent writing and direction, this show could soar. The first take isn’t bad, but I’d like to see The Eddy break for café and cigarettes and return for another crack at it.

This review appeared in Mint.

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