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Amy Taubin on The Eddy (2020)

The Eddy, 2020, still from a TV show on Netflix. Julie and Elliot (Amandla Stenberg and André Holland).

THE EDDY, a sensational eight-episode Netflix miniseries, is named for a jazz club in Paris’s thirteenth arrondissement, home to a polyglot sextet led by American ex-pat Elliot Udo (André Holland). On good nights, the music induces euphoria in the club’s devoted audience, and perhaps you as well. (Wear good headphones and turn up the sound.) There are also nights when nothing lands, and, even worse, when the dive’s owners, Elliot and his best friend Farid (Tahar Rahim), are terrorized by henchmen for a Serbian mob boss. The Eddy is a jazz musical with a thriller edge, and it’s also a dense relationship drama involving parents and children, siblings, romantic entanglements, marriages, and, most crucially, artists coming together to take refuge in creative work and find grace in the moment, which is what the best jazz ensembles do.

That applies to acting ensembles as well, which is why I often thought of the films of John Cassavetes while watching The Eddy, and also certain Claire Denis movies, in which characters are most expressive when they move to the music, as in 35 Shots of Rum (2008), where a father slow-dances with his daughter before giving her away to the young man she’s going to marry. Cassavetes and Denis are formative influences on Damien Chazelle, who is often identified as the director of this series. But television credits are more complicated than those for movies. The Eddy originated six years ago with a group of songs written by Jagged Little Pill producer Glen Ballard, who, alongside executive producer Alan Poul, decided to make them the basis of a show set in Paris. Ballard recorded the songs with a great and diverse set of players, most of whom appear on-screen. They sent the tapes to Chazelle, whose jazz künstlerroman Whiplash (2014) had just scored at Sundance. Chazelle agreed to direct. That means that he created the visual and aural templates for the series, was hands-on for the first two episodes, and, one presumes, made most of the casting and location decisions. He also selected the directors for the other six episodes (Houda Benyamina, Laïla Marrakchi, and Poul). Unlike Chazelle’s La La Land (2016), with its fleeting whitewashed dream of the City of Light, The Eddy is set in the working-class, racially diverse arrondissements on the outskirts—the thirteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and one of the almost entirely North African banlieues. The team enlisted writer Jack Thorne to structure the series, sketching out the characters and situations. If Thorne’s plot points drop like boulders, it’s The Eddy’s only failing, for the most part concealed by lively dialogue from a talented writers’ room that mixes English, Arabic, French, and occasionally Polish and, crucially, allows the actors to improvise.

The Eddy, 2020, still from a TV show on Netflix. Maja (Joanna Kulig).

Improvisation is what makes the series so compelling. Every aspect of The Eddy takes its cue from jazz. The Eddy ensemble isn’t radical. It plays Elliot’s traditional tunes and harmonies, inflecting them with North African modalities and Afro-Cuban beats. Elliot’s focus is his on-and-off, but mostly off, girlfriend Maja, with her torchy voice that can both whisper and belt. She is played by Joanna Kulig, who starred in Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War (2018), where she showed both her acting and singing chops, or at least a part of them. I thought Kulig was robbed when she didn’t win best actress at Cannes that year, but the delicacy and intensity of her performance here is even more remarkable. This is an actor who earns undivided attention simply by stomping flat-footed across a room in badly fitting shorts and a T-shirt. Hers is not the only beautifully nuanced, moving (but never maudlin) acting in the series. There’s Amandla Stenberg playing Julie, Elliot’s mutinous sixteen-year-old daughter, who thinks she’d rather live with her father than her mother until she moves to Paris and discovers that he’s even more alienated than she is. All women in the show are tough, their irony their best survival mechanism. That includes Farid’s wife (Leïla Bekhti) and the volcanic percussionist Lada Obradovic, another mesmerizing screen presence.

The Eddy, 2020, still from a TV show on Netflix. Elliot (André Holland) and Farid (Tahar Rahim).

The first episode opens with a three-and-a-half-minute handheld tracking shot. The camera careens through the door of the club, making its way through crowded tables to survey the stage close-up, traveling left, then right, lingering a bit on Maja before finding a pissed-off Eliot sitting alone on the side, soon joined by Farid, who mentions that Franck Levy (Benjamin Biolay), the owner of the prestigous music label that Eliot hoped would record the band, is walking out even before the set is over, making Elliot rise to his feet and push through the crowd in an effort to get outside before Franck does. As he reaches the door to the street, the image goes black.

Chazelle, working with cinematographer Éric Gautier, lensed the first two episodes with 16-mm film cameras, the signature recording apparatus of 1960s cinema verité (the music is all captured live). The other six episodes are photographed digitally, but largely handheld as well. That bravura opening shot not only recalls verité documentaries but also establishes, as the best verité does, a sense of a real place—the Eddy—that exists above and beyond any plot or action or what is recorded on any given day. And it suggests that the performers are caught on the fly, that the camera operator is responding to what they do, which means that we never know what is going to happen next. The effect is cumulative so that when the life-and-death stakes are cranked up in the last two episodes, the tension is unexpectedly higher than in a more conventionally shaped thriller.

The Eddy, 2020, still from a TV show on Netflix. Sim and Julie (Adil Dehbi and Amandla Stenberg).

Episodes one through seven are each named for a single character, who has a chance to “solo,” but not at the expense of the central storyline, which always yo-yos back to Elliot and his increasingly desperate attempt to keep the doors open at the Eddy and give the people who need him—even though he refuses to acknowledge his own need of them—a place where they’re part of a family and can do what they do best. “I’m all alone,” says Jude (Damian Nueva Cortes), the double bassist for whom episode four is named. Directed by Benyamina with cinematography by Julien Poupard, it is extraordinarily acted by Nueva Cortes, here making his on-screen debut. It is rare to see a performer approach the edge of an abyss so nakedly, and rarer still to see find moments of pure ecstasy there. The episode climaxes with a scene between Jude and Elliot in which their unguarded emotional connection is as revelatory as a similar scene between Isaach De Bankolé and Alex Descas in Denis’s harrowing No Fear, No Die (1990). Benyamina made her directorial feature debut with Divines (2016), a no-holds-barred study of adolescent girls in the banlieue (currently on Netflix), but her work here creates a dance (literally in one scene) of ephemeral and corporeal beauty that’s of a higher order.

The Eddy’s success rests with the character of Elliot and with Holland’s performance in what at first seems a thankless role. By the end of the first episode, we know that Elliot was once a celebrated jazz composer and pianist (think the Wynton Marsalis of keyboards). But after the death of his son, he became so profoundly afraid of feeling anything except anger that four years later he’s unable to play in public, he can’t fuck his girlfriend, and he can’t show affection to his daughter. Managing and composing for the Eddy band is a substitute and a shield, in other words—a fetishistic activity that he’s good at but is never completely satisfying. I can’t think of an actor other than Holland who would be disciplined enough to carry a series while refusing to do anything to elicit our sympathy or our love. But by the end, we care about Elliot because he doesn’t ask for anything for himself, he just asks us to love the Eddy, to become a regular, to help it endure. And what makes the series so bittersweet is that no matter how much we want to go there, it’s possible that given the circumstances in which we now live, none of us ever will.

The Eddy is now streaming on Netflix.