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Damien Chazelle’s Netflix series The Eddy defies all expectations

The director of Whiplash and La La Land is redefining ‘jazzing it up’

Joanna Kulig, as a blonde-haired singer dressed in black, stands at a microphone in a dark space, with a warm light illuminating her face in The Eddy Photo: Lou Faulon/Netflix

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An oft-ridiculed comment on jazz is that it’s all about the notes you don’t hear. Perfect setup for a joke, sure, but there’s truth to it. “Jazzing up” a song is slang for offering misdirection, for ignoring the music on the page and playing around with form, whether that means adding notes or dropping them. (Please open your jazzsplaining brochures to the 91-second mark of Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra’s 1927 recording of “Singin’ The Blues,” and tell me whether trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke made a mistake, or succinctly pinpointed the emergence of a new art form.) So it’s no surprise that Netflix’s new jazz-centered series The Eddy isn’t about playing to conventions. The brief on the show — that Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man, co-created a series about an African-American expat running a jazz club in Paris — immediately suggests some conclusions, but The Eddy defies all expectations.

For starters, it’s set in the present. It isn’t 1955, and no one is wearing a beret, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, or crossing the Pont-Neuf with a baguette under one arm. In fact, other than one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of the Eiffel Tower in the distance, there’s nothing from the city’s postcards anywhere in The Eddy’s eight lively, realistically shot episodes.

The club is on a nondescript street, and the characters’ homes are out beyond the ring road, often in faceless apartment blocks. Paris is shown as a city of immigrants, overflowing with genius and exhilaration, but with a lot of people hustling.

The eight-person band from The Eddy poses together, arms draped over each over, smiling at a group of people holding up their phones to take photos of the group. Photo: Lou Faulon/Netflix

Also, there are no elaborate setpieces like La La Land’s opening traffic-jam dance, Whiplash’s existential drum workouts, or the dizzying orbital action of First Man. The style, designed by Chazelle in the first two episodes, then passed to directors Houda Benyamina (director of Divines), Rock the Casbah’s Laïla Marrakchi, and co-creator Alan Poul (Six Feet Under, Tales of the City), maintains a handheld, indie vérité feel. The dressing-room couch is ratty, the club bathroom is poorly lit, there are dishes in all the sinks, and everyone’s yelling on top of each other.

The show’s anchor is Elliot Udo (André Holland), a jazz legend in self-imposed exile. He’s left New York, and he lacks the emotional capacity to play piano since his son’s death. He’s still composing, though, and he’s assembled a group that acts as the house band at the struggling club The Eddy, which he co-owns with his longtime pal Farid (Tahar Rahim). His estranged 16-year-old daughter Julie (The Hunger Games and The Hate U Give’s Amandla Stenberg) was making poor choices in New York, so she’s been sent to live with Dad as some sort of last chance. Elliot is a man with a lot on his mind, and that’s before he discovers that Farid has entanglements with unsavory underworld types.

Elliot’s headaches with gangsters and police would be the star of any other show, but it’s the B-story here. Center stage is his music. The Eddy Band is comprised of piano, bass, drums, tenor saxophone and trumpet. (And in one scene, a flugelhorn, hell yeah!) The Eddy Band’s singer is Elliot’s on-and-off (but lately very off) girlfriend Maja, played by Cold War’s Joanna Kulig.

Kulig has been a singing sensation in Poland for more than 20 years, so it’s no surprise that it’s really her crooning and scatting over Elliot’s complex charts. The bigger shock is that all the band members are really playing, too. It’s surprising because these aren’t just bit players with a few lines, they’re all outstanding performers who are taking up acting for the first time.

In The Eddy, blonde singer Maja leans on the shoulder of piano player and club owner Elliot as the two look offscreen. Photo: Lou Faulon/Netflix

The Eddy is definitely a narrative-focused series, with a first-season arc and an ending that nails it. But one of the best things about the show is how each episode centers on letting a specific character emerge from the ensemble. During most of the series, there are glimpses of the intriguing drummer Katarina (Lada Obradovic), a tattooed, dreadlocked Croatian woman. But we don’t see things from her point of view until episode seven, when we discover the struggles that have been roiling her. You could even interpret the rotating-spotlight construction among the characters as representing some sort of solo within a larger composition. (Dig, man, dig.)

But it isn’t just the musicians who step forward to blow. While Elliot is certainly the star, we get plenty of time to understand what his daughter Julie is going through. The show also explores Sim, the kid who works at the club’s bar, who would make a cute couple with Julie, if they can work out a few things. Then there’s Farid’s wife Amira, played with grace and sympathy by Leïla Bekhti, who also happens to be married to Rahim in real life.

The series takes some time to get settled before it leaves the club behind to explore the culture of Paris’ North African community. The specificity is key here — the show sits in on a funeral, and is privy to a number of Muslim burial traditions, most of which I’ve never seen on film before. It’s a bit risky (but again, in the best jazz traditions) to unexpectedly duck out on the plot for lengthy scenes of what’s essentially fly-on-the-wall, cultural filmmaking, but it gives the show so much of its flavor. This same episode (directed by Houda Benyamina) soon seesaws back to take us somewhere entirely different: a “jazz funeral.”

And coming back to jazz is what these characters always do. Despite all of Elliot’s other headaches, he’s always plucking away at melodies and scratching out lyrics. We watch him introduce songs to the band, see them get ironed out in rehearsals, and eventually cheer when they get a live run. Their end-of-the-rainbow goal is recording an album, but getting there won’t come easy.

In a scene from The Eddy, an audience gathers around a performer who’s standing on stage, blowing into a muted black trumpet. Photo: Lou Faulon/Netflix

In a bold creative move, The Eddy Band never plays a jazz classic. The songs are all originals, written by multiple Grammy-winner Glen Ballard, mega-producer of pop and Broadway music, and co-author of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill,” among many others. (The Eddy’s principal writer is Jack Thorne, whose credits include the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and HBO’s His Dark Materials, and a lot of British television.) The songs have one foot in the style of the “Great American Songbook” (e.g. George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern), the type of tunes famously transformed into jazz standards for decades. But they have splashes of modernity, too — a soupçon of hip-hop goes a long way. Most importantly, though, this isn’t easy-listening, half-assed jazz. These cats can really wail, and when the moment is right, they do.

Set in Paris’s multicultural milieu, the club’s stage also plays host to some Afrobeat and North African-inspired music. So do the characters’ roving adventures, particularly Sim’s episode, set in his community’s banlieue. There’s even a bit where the band takes a wedding gig, but manage to make it swing.

I’d sooner hurl myself into the Seine than say “the songs are like characters,” but they’re certainly designed to make viewers form personal attachments to them — and wind up singing these tunes nonstop. On top of everything else, The Eddy is a well-oiled vehicle for getting some eclectic, well-produced music into the world. (The soundtrack album drops the same day as the show.) The triumph, though, isn’t just that The Eddy is a great window into the jazz process, or even “the jazz life.” It’s that the show is an extended stay with rich characters. The final episode is as tense as the most action-heavy thriller, even though it’s about someone playing a piano ballad. Laying out eight episodes of interpersonal battles and sometimes criminal conflict, then putting it all into one tender moment of song? It’s a perfect illustration of “jazzing it up.”

Netflix will release all eight episodes of The Eddy on May 8th.

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