One of the most well-known actors alive, Denzel Washington, has magnificently performed as an array of characters. His acting has been performed so well, leaving many to wonder where the line blurs between playing a character and Washington’s genuine talents.
In the movie Mo’ Better Blues, Washington stars as a trumpet player. However, did the actor truly learn to play the trumpet, or was it merely another one of his roles?
Denzel Washington as Bleek Gilliam
A Spike Lee film, produced in 1990, Mo’ Better Blues, is a film centered around a musical jazz group. Denzel Washington stars as Bleek Gilliam, a talented trumpeter who grows up to form his own jazz band.
In various scenes throughout the film, Washington’s character skillfully plays the trumpet. There is no evidence of CGI nor a stunt double during these scenes; however, is Washington actually playing the trumpet?
Both his breathwork and his handle of the trumpet are on par with that of an authentic trumpet player. However, the various scenes could have easily been substituted with jazz music while the actors simply formed the movements.
All About Mimicking
Unfortunately, Washington was not the actual player of the many impressive trumpet solos and musical duets in the movie. Because Washington is paid only to act, it can be expected that he did not become a professional trumpet player by the end of shooting the film.
Why Washington was so convincing as Bleek can be credited to the trumpet lessons that he received from Terrence Blanchard and numerous other coaches during filming. Blanchard, being the authentic trumpeter behind the film’s music, was a significant influence and taught Washington how to correctly mimic playing the trumpet.
Washington flourished from Blanchard’s teachings. The star admitted that he “was lucky if he could play three notes of a simple tune prior to filming and ended up being able to correctly mimic most of the songs performed in the film,” due to the help he received from Blanchard.
Making a Sound
While Washington’s acting makes it seem so, mimicking playing an instrument is not as simple as it sounds. Blanchard advised Washington’s trumpet coaches to “get Washington to the point where he could at least produce a sound”. He explained that “you have to understand what is physically involved in producing these tones” to correctly mimic them.
Once Washington knew how to form a sound with the trumpet – and where to place his fingers for each song – Blanchard figured that his work was done. Blanchard was clear about not wanting to distract Washington from his acting by going too in-depth on trumpet lessons. However, Washington himself didn’t stop there.
Washington was expected to halt his trumpet training after learning finger positioning and mimicking breathwork. However, the actor willingly began listening to Jazz and detecting melody and blues on his own time.
Blanchard even mentioned that,
Denzel said if he could just play one song by the end of the shoot, he’d be happy.
Despite the fact that the scenes would be replaced with Blanchard’s tunes, Washington’s conviction to learn the trumpet was so strong that when he made any simple mistake on camera, he would have to start over.
Nonetheless, Washington was determined to make the act of playing trumpet as believable on-screen as possible. By the end of filming, Washington was able to correctly identify blues and melodic lines.
Denzel Washington is a talented actor who fully commits to his character roles, and his performance in Mo’ Better Blues was no exception. Although he never mastered the trumpet, Washington effectively learned to mimic the skill, and his acting even led fans to believe that he held natural trumpeting abilities.
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