In case it wasn’t already obvious, director Damien Chazelle loves music. Like really loves it. The now-famous director was once on a doomed quest to become a professional jazz drummer when he studied at Princeton High School, and the fact that he had an especially intense tutor will come as no surprise to fans of his breakout film, Whiplash. Then there was his band at Harvard, Chester French, and, of course, La La Land, his heartfelt, timeless ode to the musical.
Just as music has characterized and defined the director’s life, so it does with The Eddy, a just-released limited series for Netflix in which Chazelle appears to have been able to fill its eight-hour duration with as much jazz as he can squeeze. Here it's the show’s entire language and the structural glue that holds it all together. It almost feels like TV made from jazz. But for all The Eddy’s entertaining glamor and emotional weight, it’s held back by aimlessness and overindulgence.
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The Eddy is the story of a Parisian jazz club and the band of the same name that ply their rambunctious trade there nightly. However, the club founded by Elliot Udo (André Holland, Moonlight) is struggling financially. This famous New York musician has to manage business interests that get increasingly murky, his extremely tiresome daughter, Julie, and the dysfunctional band while it records an all-important album.
The Eddy trumpets onto the streaming scene in a time of booming renaissance for jazz more widely. In recent years, the genre’s popularity has exploded. Spotify reported in 2018 that listens to their Jazz UK playlist have more than doubled, with artists like the Ezra Collective, The Comet is Coming, and Kamasi Washington revitalizing the genre and repurposing it for our turbulent present. In short, jazz is cool now. The Eddy thinks it’s pretty cool, too. And it is, for the most part.
At first, however, it may put some people off. The show’s title card invites you into this “série originale netflix” and most of the cast in this flit between fluent French and English effortlessly. Its tone and style certainly won’t be for everyone. The musical numbers – of which there are many – often outstay their welcome, so if you have anything against jazz, I wouldn’t bother watching. And as we start in the crowd watching the band, they seem haughty and aloof, moaning at each other for minor mistakes.
This first impression fades when you realize The Eddy doesn’t take itself as seriously as it initially seems. Farid’s wife Amira (Leïla Bekhti), gently teases them for their snobbishness, and as they play an al fresco wedding gig, the bride mutters that she wishes they’d change their “elevator music” for something more popular. Even the bank refuses to support the club because they’re “not French enough.”
But it’s The Eddy's structure that gets under its characters' highfalutin skin. Each episode is named after one character and is then mostly driven by the baggage that person bring to each gig. These mini-narratives give the show the feel of an anthology, and that was a strong creative choice. As Katarina struggles to get the support from the state her disabled father needs and Sim gets desperate in his efforts to get his terminally-ill mother to Mecca, we see the real diversity that enriches Paris’ shabby banlieues. Beyond a poster reading “Strength in diversity” in the background and a copy of James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket, the importance of diversity isn’t commented on or emphasized. It’s just there.
By the time the band comes together to record their album – the final episode is named ‘The Eddy’ – it’s a different story, like an empty gallery that’s now been filled. The sound they produce is more nuanced in context. Once we know that band members are variously playing through the pain of addiction or a poor relationship with a parent, we understand where the passion for their music comes from, and it creates a quite beautiful ensemble by the end.
That said, The Eddy does occasionally lurch into cheesiness and melodrama. After a hectic night involving a botched sexual encounter, and being kidnapped by drug dealers, Julie plays her clarinet to cope. Impromptu performances take place frequently as if The Eddy were a sort of makeshift musical, and it doesn’t always work. We also get a classic rom-com cliche as Elliot makes a last-ditch exhortation to his love interest and Eddy lead singer, Maja, at the airport.
The show is weakest when it wants to be a crime thriller. The fallout of Elliot's partner's dodgy business dealings triggers a hokey overarching plot that gets increasingly ridiculous and ultimately tails off. The big bad gangster that torments Elliot and the club with fire bombs and threats is someone that really loves jazz, for instance. The lack of a crescendo feels as if another season is being set up, but this is just a limited series.
But, as we’re reminded in the final scenes, The Eddy is all about the music and the people that produce it. So much so that scenes without it are conspicuous in its absence. With the lively gig scenes still reverberating in the mind, the scene of a body being prepared for burial – drained of all life, colour, and sound - is especially jarring, and stark in its cold silence. Other moments play simultaneously with the band’s performances, both to enhance and contrast with events elsewhere. At times in The Eddy, music and life become so intertwined as to be indistinguishable.
It's all enhanced by a demanding, close-up camera that helps us feel like we're there. We get right up in Elliot’s face in a way that recalls Ryan Gosling’s claustrophobic cockpit in First Man, of which Holland copes masterfully as his face displays endless variations of I don’t need this right now. Conversations feel as chaotic as a solo as we whirl from one face to the next. Thrust into the centre of the crowd we can almost taste the black coffee amid the haze of tobacco.
While that may sound off-putting to some at first, what starts as impenetrable and distant becomes more welcoming as the chinks in the band's initially arrogant armour unravel. Each note, scene, and character is marshalled to bring us all together under one roof regardless of our backgrounds, by a shared appreciation of music.
The Eddy's earnestness to present its clarion call on the uniting power of music means it veers into something overlong, self-indulgent, and all that jazz, but its heart is in the right place.
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