AT one point in Spike Lee's new movie, ``Mo' Better Blues,'' the jazz-musician hero is the target of a stinging criticism: that he's sacrificing his potential stardom because he listens too closely to his own instincts, instead of playing what audiences want to hear. That's a dilemma for many artists, and it certainly faces Mr. Lee, who has been trying for several years to change the course of black filmmaking. He wants to portray African-American life in a way that dodges Hollywood's stereotypes and clich'es, refusing either to glamorize or sensationalize his characters and their often-difficult world. The trouble is that countless moviegoers like stereotypes, respond to clich'es, and cheer when glamour and sensationalism hit the screen.
Lee's last picture, ``Do the Right Thing,'' managed to reach a wide audience and keep its integrity by striking an artful balance between sociopolitical substance and sheer entertainment power, while never bowing to the trite or predictable. It was a masterful achievement that prompted months of praise, discussion, and controversy, and I'm quite certain it will be remembered as the single most important American film of the 1980s.
Another effect of that movie was to raise expectations for Lee's future: Since he gave us one masterpiece, we now expect nothing less for the rest of his career! This is unfair to him, of course, but it's a hard attitude to shake.
``Mo' Better Blues'' comes as a letdown, partly because of its own shortcomings and partly because it's not as dazzling as the picture that preceded it.
What's most important, though, is that even its weakest moments show no evidence that Lee is ignoring his own vision or catering to mass audiences. He's as original as ever - perhaps to a fault, since part of the problem with ``Mo' Better Blues'' is that it's too determined to slide out of familiar story twists and genre conventions, even when this makes the picture seem uncomfortably loose and wavering.
As the title suggests, the hero of ``Mo' Better Blues'' is a jazz musician. His name is Bleek Gilliam, and he's successful enough to have earned some of the things he wants most in life - such as his own band and steady work in a New York club - and a few things he shouldn't want, including one girlfriend too many.
He also has a manager with a compulsive gambling problem that threatens to hurt the lives of people around him, including Bleek himself.
The movie starts when Bleek is a little boy, practicing the trumpet just because his parents make him. The center of the story shows Bleek juggling his love life and his music-business problems, leading to a violent and disturbing climax. The end - sure to be the most controversial portion - is pure optimism, celebrating redemption through love and family life.
On the level of pure entertainment, ``Mo' Better Blues'' rarely builds the intensity of ``Do the Right Thing'' in its acting or its writing. A hallmark of the earlier film was Lee's ability to set up highly charged encounters between two people (the pizzeria owner and his son, two men with ``boom box'' radios, and so forth) and build the complexity of their confrontation through finely tuned performances and precisely thought-out camera work.
``Mo' Better Blues'' sets up similar moments but rarely finds the same energy level; the performances often seem more jokey than pungent, and Lee's camera keeps cutting away, trying to work up rhythms that should grow spontaneously from the acting and dialogue.
Some scenes of violence (not including the powerful climax of the film) are handled with a half-humorous quality that doesn't work as comedy or irony. The whole plot wanders, moreover, to the point where you sometimes wonder where it's going and what it has on its mind. And when you find out, it isn't always worth the wait.
``Mo' Better Blues'' might seem more indecisive than it really is because Lee never lets it settle into Hollywood narrative patterns that would soothe and please us by familiarity alone. Then, too, some may find the movie all too decisive in its last few minutes, when Lee resolves the story in a heartfelt tribute to the moral and even spiritual powers of enduring family love.
I have already heard this scene attacked as a black version of ``Father Knows Best,'' and further criticisms are likely. But they badly miss Lee's point, which is to trumpet a message that needs to be emphasized with vigor because it's so rarely allowed to be heard at all in today's movie climate. On its own stylized terms, this is a strong and deeply affecting moment, and I won't be surprised if its reputation - like that of the entire film - grows ever stronger in months and years to come, when its original ideas seem less surprising and unsettling.
Other assets of ``Mo' Better Blues'' include several of its performances. Denzel Washington smartly understates his portrayal of the hero; Joie Lee and Cynda Williams complement each other splendidly as his lovers; several familiar faces from ``Do the Right Thing'' prove that they're first-rate actors rather than colorful ``types'' that Lee stumbled on; and Lee himself gives one of his marvelously wry second-banana performances as Giant, the manager with money woes.
Also praiseworthy are the cinematography by Ernest Dickerson and the music by Bill Lee, fleshed out by five Branford Marsalis songs.
Most important is the movie's perseverance in showing African-American life with a touch that's warmly sympathetic yet not afraid to be critical - confronting problems like gambling and womanizing, and also showing how they can be replaced by deeper, more profound values of love and loyalty.
Lee has been criticized on many grounds during his still-young career: for stressing sexuality too strongly in ``She's Gotta Have It,'' for addressing the black community too exclusively in ``School Daze,'' for avoiding such plagues as drug abuse and grinding poverty in ``Do the Right Thing,'' and so on. ``Mo' Better Blues'' is far from perfect, but it deserves to be welcomed, if only because it has the courage to face grim difficulties of African-American life and yet emerge with a richly romantic attitude at a time when most American pictures dwell all too much on negativity.
I wish ``Mo' Better Blues'' were a little mo' better than it is, but Spike Lee remains a major filmmaking talent, and even his second-best work has an awful lot going for it.
``Mo' Better Blues'' is rated R, reflecting vulgar language, some sexual activity, and moments of violence.