The Eddy Season 1 Review: Music Can Save You

Jul 23, 2020
Poster image for The Eddy

Damien Chazelle is one of the most important voices to emerge in American cinema over the last decade. A director, writer and producer, he really made his mark at the age of 29 with Whiplash, released in 2014. An intense, intimate drama of obsession and codependency featuring an abusive music teacher and his desperate, determined pupil, it was acclaimed across the board and netted J.K.Simmons an Oscar for the his turn as monstrous, unrepentant Terence Fletcher. Then came La La Land in 2016, a jazz-infused musical throwback to a bygone era with a thoroughly modern sensibility, it was a hit and netted Chazelle the Academy Award for Best Director in 2017, the youngest person to win the award at 32.

He followed up his triumphant win (let's not mention the Best Picture snafu here!) by reuniting with La La Land star Ryan Gosling for a recreation of the first moon landing with a sombre Neil Armstrong (Gosling) at its centre. First Man is quite possibly a masterpiece, a soulful meditation on obsession tangled up with grief, but it performed well below expectations, perhaps fuelled by the reaction to its lack of flag-waving triumphalism, and was largely shut out of the subsequent awards season. Time will be kind to it though as it is a startling piece of work, boldly holding focus on the internalised emotions of its lead character against the backdrop of one of man's greatest achievements (which it replicates with an unnervingly tense verisimilitude). 

Chazelle then turned his attention to the small screen, and Netflix, for The Eddy, an eight-part drama centred around a nightclub where a violent event leads towards personal implosions for those who work there as they respond to the emotional fallout in their own fashion. Although it's created by British playwright/screenwriter Jack Thorne (The Virtues, National Treasure) Chazelle's fingerprints are all over it, evident in the way it leans into its jazzy setting and its characters' internal lives, his handheld, vérité direction on the first two episodes setting the tone and rhythm for the entire series, ignoring Parisian landmarks for urban realism.  It debuted in May 2020 to lukewarm reviews, and seems at this short distance to be another case of a critical misunderstanding of Chazelle's output, as - while arguably a niche proposition - it possesses a deep sense of humanity and messy relationship dynamics, with every day struggles often made that much more bearable through the primal power of music.

Andre Holland as Elliott Udo

Elliott Udo (André Holland ) co-owns The Eddy, a jazz club in Paris, with Farid (Tahar Rahim), the latter seemingly more carefree and cavalier than his partner. Elliott, once a celebrated jazz musician, now refuses to play following a family tragedy, instead investing his energies into The Eddy's house band - he writes the songs, they play them, often to his liking. After a dangerous interaction with the criminal underworld, things quickly being to spiral out of control for Elliott, which in turn impacts everyone he comes into contact with, from the individual members of the band, to his daughter Julie (Amandla Stenberg) who has recently arrived from the States, to Farid's wife Amira (Leïla Bekhti) to the cops trying to piece together what has happened (and what Elliott's role in it all is).

Holland (Moonlight, High Flying Bird) plays Elliot with intensity and passion, a man struggling to stay afloat in an increasingly precarious position, in danger of bringing everyone else down with him, but his belief in his band - his music - sustaining him with a forward momentum. There's a feeling that if he ever stopped moving, whether physically or mentally, his world would crash down around him. His interactions with friends, colleagues and loved ones are frequently charged, with each participant carrying their own emotional baggage, but various stresses and strains seem to bind them together more inextricably. Holland is exceptional in the role, his eyes truly providing a gateway to the character's tortured soul.

Each episode is named after a specific character, and adjacent to the main plot we delve further into that character's life, which avoids convenient pigeon-holing of the supporting cast as 'bass player', 'daughter', 'drummer', and so on. Instead complicated lives full of pain and love and hope are revealed, where music is the force that provides intimacy, community, inspiration and maybe salvation. The cast are uniformly excellent, each individual player grounded and believable, sketching out understated relationships that feel honest and unfiltered, the dialogue moving seamlessly between French, English and Arabic. Besides Holland the other standout is Stenberg as Elliott's daughter - she's damaged and often careless, desperately looking for a connection - preferably with her father - but has a tendency to sabotage situations before she gets where she needs to be. It's a delightfully vibrant and mischievous performance, with Julie working through her internal battle between maturity and lingering immaturity; Stenberg is terrific - bold and vulnerable.

Amandla Stenberg and Andre Holland

Then there's the music. 'Jazz' is often seen a dirty word in some circles, a kind of inverse snobbery that's never especially warranted, but obviously a TV series interspersed with musical numbers may lower the appeal for a few. It is, however, the most potent and effective use of live performance in serialised narrative television since David Simon's criminally underrated Treme - it presents music as the equilibrium, the place where things make sense in an often senseless world. Chazelle's love of jazz is obviously a major attraction to the project for him, and he gets the rhythm, cadence and uplifting nature of music - and how it can be interwoven with human drama - in a way few others do. The band's convincing passion and playing aren't accoutrements to the overlapping storylines - it's essential in conveying the way a song, a performance, can heal emotional scars - even if only temporarily - or highlight new perspectives on everyday strife. Through music these characters reveal their truest selves; they're at their most alive when playing, performing, listening.

The ending is devastating but optimistic - and includes a showstopper of a sequence - but the muted response to the season likely means it'll be a one-off, even though the door is left ajar for more; it still deserves the time and effort as Thorne has a rich, affecting story to tell and Chazelle's influence once again underscores that he is a significant talent - he's given us more than enough exceptional material now that we have no reason to challenge his authenticity. He instinctively understands an important universal truth: we're nothing as a species without music; it saves us, it lifts us up, keeping us alive through the darkest moments with hope, love and the pure wonder of the shared experience.

The Eddy Season 1 is available to stream via Netflix.

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