MO' BETTER BLUESR, 1990, 129 minutes, closed-captioned, MCA/Universal, $92.95.
In Spike Lee's sketchy, invigorating, mystifying "Mo' Better Blues," Denzel Washington plays Bleek Gilliam, a trumpet virtuoso who has poured his entire life into his horn. When he was a boy and the kids down the block showed up at his front stoop in Brooklyn, ready to play ball, his mother shooed them away and turned the restless youngster back to practicing his scales. The man who grew up from this rigorous, sheltered childhood is fully formed as a musician and something less than complete as a person. And Bleek's crucial challenge -- of bringing these two aspects of his character into balance -- is Lee's subject. In "Mo' Better," Lee has narrowed the focus to emphasize the personal, examining sex, love and the whole "man-woman thing." And from the look of it, this is not his main area of expertise. The film, which Lee wrote and directed, divides Bleek's attention between two women, an ambitious would-be singer named Clarke (newcomer Cynda Williams) and a teacher named Indigo (the director's sister, Joie Lee) who has little interest in show business. Washington gives Bleek a quiet, flashing charm; he delivers a gorgeous, magnetically sexy performance -- a true star performance. There's something bruised about Bleek; he's folded in on himself, preoccupied, as if he were constantly tracing the melodies in his head. The threat that women represent to Bleek -- and by extension, to Lee -- is clear. The conflicts are real, but Lee seems reluctant to plunge in and deal with them seriously. He seems just as gun-shy as Bleek about exploring himself and his emotions. Lee sets down a nice groove with his actors, and as a performer himself, he's an engaging comic presence. But the film's only real emotional depth can be found in Washington's performance -- nowhere else.
HAIL THE CONQUERING HEROUnrated, 1944, 101 minutes, closed-captioned, MCA/Universal, $29.95.
In 1943, Preston Sturges had hoped to film a version of Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," but, after a hitch in obtaining the rights, turned instead to a satire of military heroism. In "Hail the Conquering Hero," Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), a would-be Marine who is rejected because of chronic hay fever, is returned to his home town as a hero with a borrowed medal by a group of soldiers on leave. With its irreverent pricking at '40s pieties, its pinball logic and roadrunner pace, the movie is vintage Sturges. Despite Woodrow's repeated attempts to tell the truth, he's transformed into a living legend, wins back the heart of his former girlfriend (Ella Raines) and eventually is offered as a candidate for mayor. And the truth, when it's finally revealed, only makes matters worse. Conceived as a companion to "Miracle at Morgan's Creek" -- which Sturges and Bracken had just finished shooting -- "Hail the Conquering Hero" plays like an inspired tirade; it contains some of the best hollerin' in movie history. Peopled by the usual cast of Sturges irregulars (William Demarest, Jimmy Conlin, Chester Conklin, et al.), it builds up comic steam like a pressure cooker. The Sturges mark is on every hilarious moment. Hal Hinson
COUNTRY MUSIC VIDEO MAGAZINE; METALHEAD VIDEO MAGAZINE, VOL. 2; DANCE INTERNATIONAL VIDEO MAGAZINEUnrated, 1990, 60 minutes each, BMG Video, $12.98 each.
These "magazines" are the downside of video culture and perhaps the inevitable consequence of all-music networks like MTV and the Nashville Network -- you no longer have to bother reading about stars because now you can hear them talk (mostly about themselves) in myriad interviews and "news" programs. Here you get contextual snippets from videos and live performances, and nothing lasts for more than a few minutes, so you get the feeling that someone's turning the pages for you. Though most people aren't likely to read a real magazine more than once, video magazines are slowly evolving as a growth industry within the music business, which has found an effective way to recycle all the available video debris. Because it's more talk than music, and because what music there is is seldom a full performance, let your tolerance for talking heads and irritating hosts be your guide.
"Country Music" is, like the subject it celebrates, the most straightforward of these offerings, and benefits from its focus on the neotraditionalist youngbloods who continue to revitalize country. They include Clint Black, who comes across as personable and unaffected as he wanders around the Universal Studios grounds; Alan Jackson, who takes the viewer for a ride in his '59 Chevy; an unassuming Garth Brooks and Patty Loveless, who talk about positive and realistic images in country lyrics after decades of cheatin' and drinkin' songs; k.d. lang, who talks about growing up in the open spaces of Alberta, her concept of progressive country and the famous People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals spot (which is included); the underrated veteran Vince Gill, who offers an acoustic "Sight for Sore Eyes" from his living room; and Chris Hillman, who talks about the early Byrds (with snips from the Byrds/Dylan get-together last year); and the currently hot Desert Rose Band. On the downside, Lorrie Morgan continues to exploit the death of husband Keith Whitley, and there's a clumsy rockabilly-focused tribute to Rick Nelson.
"MetalHead, Vol. 2" is (not surprisingly) funnier when it's not meant to be than when it is. Except for German metal mama Doro Pesch (shown shopping for costumes for her upcoming tour), this is mostly boys stuff. The collection kicks off with a little historic gilt-by-association -- a post-mortem Jimi Hendrix video for "Crosstown Traffic" -- and then races downhill with backstage scenes from a metal festival at Wisconsin's Alpine Valley, temporary site of "The World Series of Rock." You also get studio plugs from Extreme, House of Lords and Circus of Power; Pretty Boy Floyd answering some fan mail; a visit with Great White vocalist Jack Russell on his soon-to-be-remodeled boat; a little speed metal-with-animation from Dead On; future dreams with Slaughter; and a surprisingly lucid interview with guitar god Steve Vai. For the most part, though, these are not the world's most elegant dudes. Maybe that's the charm.
"Dance International" is perhaps the giddiest of these video magazines, if only because of the narcissistic nature of the scene. Americans will undoubtedly be interested in the scenes from English "raves," the carefully planned but illegal dances held in rural cowfields and abandoned warehouses overflowing with equally abandoned dancers. The accent is on international "energy" house acts like Snap, Black Box, 808 State and Guru Josh, all with rhythm to burn even though nary a live drummer is to be found. The charming Lisa Stansfield and Betty Boo get a few words in edgewise, and there's a desperate attempt to convince people that "The Bus Stop" is America's latest dance craze. Besides the constant posing and preening by self-absorbed dancers and models, there's an ongoing fashion parade, and hilarious scenes from a gay disco hosting the ghosts of assorted pop culture icons. Richard Harrington
THE SWINGLE SINGERS IN CONCERTUnrated, 1989, 26 minutes, Proscenium, $19.95.
The Swingle Singers sound so good, you might wonder whether a video recording can enhance the enjoyment of their special kind of music. The answer provided by this short but eventful video is a firm yes. Not only are the eight members of the current ensemble (who must have been infants when Ward Swingle first organized the group in the 1960s) highly photogenic, but they are also entertaining to watch as they imitate cannons and church bells in their condensed "1812" Overture, or drums, crumhorns and a recorder in King Henry VIII's rollicking "Pastime With Good Company." Still, the primary attraction is the extraordinary musicianship of this group: precision of intonation, clarity of diction in the relatively rare moments when they sing words rather than instrumental sounds, and the sure sense of style with which they tackle music that ranges from Bach's little organ fugue in G minor to Debussy's "Clair de Lune." Curiously, the least interesting item on the program (though still quite interesting) is a Lennon-McCartney medley, perhaps because it has a relatively low level of technical challenge. Joseph McLellan