The Eddy review: Damien Chazelle’s jazz drama sounds wonderful but the plot feels like an afterthought

Director’s new series stars Andre Holland as a once-famous American jazz pianist who has been unable to play since his son died

Ed Cumming
Friday 08 May 2020 16:07 BST
The Eddy trailer

To paraphrase the old joke about vegans, we know Damien Chazelle loves jazz because he tells us. His debut, Whiplash, depicted the sado-masochistic relationship between a drum teacher and his pupil. The follow-up, La La Land, was a dreamlike musical romp through Hollywood that won Chazelle the Oscar for Best Director when he was just 32.

After that he made First Man, a well-received but non-musical Neil Armstrong biopic. Perhaps wanting a break from blockbusters, Chazelle forgoes the big screen here for eight episodes on Netflix, and takes as its subject a little jazz club called The Eddy in a suburb of Paris. This is not the city of the Louvre and lights, but a grimy, liminal world of tower blocks and hustling immigrants.

Andre Holland stars as Elliot, a once-famous American jazz pianist who has been unable to play since his son died. He is estranged from his wife, who lives in New York, and more recently from Maja (Joanna Kulig), the singer at the club, which Elliot runs with his friend Farid (Tahar Rahim). At the start of the first episode, The Eddy is an almost-place, where musicians who aren’t quite clicking play to empty rooms. Money is tight, the performers are restless. Into this fraught situation jumps Elliot’s teenage daughter Julie (Amandla Stenberg), escaping a scandal with her stepfather in New York.

Each episode focuses on a different character, showing how they struggle to put aside their demons in the service of a few perfect minutes of music every night. The musician’s life takes the usual toll in the form of break-ups and drug abuse and poverty. It’s all shot in a shaky low-grain verite style, with the city sketched out in blues and greys. Once or twice it was Bourne-esque, in a good way. It’s surprising from Chazelle, and makes a refreshing change from the usual high-gloss of prestige TV. He directs the first two episodes himself, and sets the tone for the rest. He is obviously happiest depicting scenes of performance and rehearsal, and these sequences are given all the time and space they need.

In contrast to Whiplash’s jazz standards, all the tunes are original, written by Glen Ballard and Randy Kerber. Sir Humphrey might have called this a brave decision, but the cast can really play. Kulig is a famous singer in her native Poland; some of the band are professional jazz players in their first acting roles. As the bedraggled virtuoso, Holland holds the whole thing together, but he is well supported, especially by Stenberg and Adil Dehbi, who plays Sim, the club’s barman-with-dreams.

The Eddy flows less smoothly when it comes to everything besides the music. It’s written by Jack Thorne, the prolific British writer behind His Dark Materials, the Harry Potter play, and a bazillion other things. Although the script is superficially accomplished, especially the way the dialogue skips between English and French (and Polish and Arabic and Serbian), sometimes the plot – an off-the-shelf gangster-debt scenario – feels like an afterthought. You get the sense everyone would rather just sit back and watch the music.

The Eddy reminds me of Treme, David Simon’s follow-up to The Wire, in which he was given the freedom to create a loving homage to the music of New Orleans. The music was beyond reproach, but everything else felt slow. If you liked the rehearsal scenes in Whiplash, you’ll enjoy lots of this. But where in that film they were in the service of a tight story, here they are the high points of swirling, indulgent episodes that last more than an hour. The Eddy is an appealing image, a contemplative lacuna of calm outside the bustle and flow of everyday life, but the other thing about them is that you go round in circles and don’t really get anywhere. It’s not quite my tempo.

The Eddy arrives on Netflix on 8 May

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