In “The Eddy,” beautiful melodies tell terrible things

The Eddy Amandla Stenberg and André Holland in The Eddy. (Netflix)

Netflix’s new music drama has enough style and strong performances to overcome its padding in this eight-episode season.

Making music in Paris is no easy task in the 2010s, and club owner Elliot Udo (André Holland) learns so throughout the new Netflix show The Eddy. Running to France after his young son’s death and the subsequent degeneration of his marriage to Allison (Melissa George), Udo has abandoned his successful recording career.

Instead, he is trying to bring The Eddy to life and launch the career of the jazz group he leads as bandleader (but never performer). His partner in the business, Farid (Tahar Rahim), is charming—too charming for his good, it seems. Making one deal too many to keep Elliot’s dream alive puts Elliot, the rest of the Eddy staff, and the band in the sights of some unsavory players.

To make matters worse, Elliot’s relationship to the band’s singer, Maja (Joanna Kulig), is on the rocks. His daughter, Julie (Amandla Stenberg), has just arrived from New York as punishment from by her mother for some wrongdoings made unclear. Facing debt, police, criminals, grief, creativity doldrums, and a personal life he can’t seem to help make worse, Elliot will be lucky to survive these eight episodes.

Throughout the season, it’s clear that executive producer Damien Chazelle likes music. Perhaps he even loves it. This should come as no surprise given that a majority of his works is explicitly about music, such as La La Land, Whiplash, the short that inspired Whiplash, and now The Eddy. If they aren’t, chances are that they make music an important element of the storytelling, such as in Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and Grand Piano. As a result, it makes sense that many have been universally referring to the show as Chazelle’s.

Truthfully, Chazelle’s visual signatures are all over the show. There’s the restless camera that hunts through both the half-filled jazz club and the rarely depicted streets of Paris. There’s the use of unblinking, quiet, and off-center close-ups to trap its characters, and there’s the loving appreciation of people making music. Chazelle helms the first two episodes and subsequent directors Houda Benyamina, Laïla Marrakchi, and Alan Poul maintain those signifiers with the help of cinematographers Eric Gautier and Julien Poupard

The reason why one would put Chazelle front and center is therefore an understandable one. However, doing so loses sight of the show’s creator, Jack Thorne, who has a hand in writing every episode. It also undermines Glen Ballard, executive producer/creator of most of the show’s music. 

The latter’s influence should be obvious. All the music in The Eddy is unmistakably jazzy, but none of them are standards. The ones not plucked up by music supervisor Angela Vicari and her team are largely written and composed by Ballard himself, often working with Randy Kerber. As a result, the show feels like more than just a survey of famous jazz music. It feels “right,” a mix of musicians playing the not-so-well known stuff they love and struggling to create their own art.

It feels “right,” a mix of musicians playing the not-so-well known stuff they love and struggling to create their own art.

Ballard paints the scenes beyond the club with music as well. In “Jude”—each of the episodes are named for the character they center on—Jude (musician and composer Damian Nueva), the band’s bassist, uses a bassline as a kind of siren call to draw in an ex from across a crowded subway platform. Paired with Nueva’s open and almost goofy facial expressions, the scene plays out with a wonderful sweetness.

What makes it truly interesting, though, is how Ballard pulls that simple bassline through the rest of the episode. As Jude’s romance falters and his professional career seems to degenerate, those notes provide a kind of thematic countermelody. As bad as things get, the song reminds us over and over of Jude’s genuine guileless charm, making for the strongest episode of the season.

Thorne’s influence is not as immediately easy to see or feel. Something of a journeyman writer with 36 credits (and even more if you count individual episodes) to his name in 15 years, he has written across genres and themes. As such, he doesn’t have the same kind of fingerprints Chazelle or Ballard do. However, a closer evaluation of his work gives way to an understanding that his contribution is the tone. He grounds The Eddy in the realities of modern Paris, the financial difficulties, the racial dynamics that play as both familiar and very different from America’s own racial concerns.

Of course, none of this would register unless the actors could personify it. Holland, as the show’s center, manages the none-too-easy feat of rendering a protagonist you understand and root for without being strictly likable. His Elliot is prickly, liable to lose his temper, and frequently too quick to try and go it alone rather than ask for the help he needs. On the other hand, you can feel the reservoirs of caring that run through him. Even as he seeks to divorce himself from his pain, Holland lets it carve his face in scene after scene.

Stenberg proves his equal, giving the show an undeniable “like father, like daughter” feel. She too is undeniably self-destructive and seems hell-bent on abusing the trust and support of those around her. She is also so obviously an open wound seeking any kind of relief that your heart aches for her every time she does exactly the wrong thing.

At eight episodes, The Eddy is not without that classic Netflix bloat. The reliance on the “character spotlight” format often denies us information in a way that isn’t intriguing but rather frustrating. Some changes to the structure could easily trim off hours and give the show a cleaner line.

Still, there is a shambling, shagging element that mirrors the formation of jazz music. In the same way jazz can often end up in dead ends or run on too long before delivering a satisfying crescendo, The Eddy sometimes feels a bit out over its own skis. And, as alluded to above, there is frustration in that. However, there is a kind of joy that comes from the moment it all clicks back into place again—the moment when you and the show both arrive on that exact right note.

The Eddy jazzes up Netflix this Friday, May 8.

The Eddy Trailer:

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