When Ryan Gosling’s trad-jazz die-hard got a gig playing with populist John Legend in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, the look on Gosling’s face suggested that he’d sold his soul. But when a disgruntled bride sends a message to the jazz combo in the Netflix series The Eddy—whose first two episodes Chazelle directed—demanding they play something her wedding guests have actually heard of, the band switches gears without a beat and puts as much of their energy into playing crowd-pleasing pop (specifically Mika’s “Elle Me Dit”) as they do their own music.
Although Chazelle’s name is most prominently featured, The Eddy isn’t really his show. After some apparent hedging on Netflix’s part, writer Jack Thorne gets sole “created by” credit, and the direction of the eight episodes is split four ways, between Chazelle, TV veteran Alan Poul, and Laïla Marrakchi and Houda Benyamina, both Parisian residents of Moroccan heritage. The Eddy is set in Paris, centered around a jazz club of the same name run by expatriate and ex-pianist Elliot Udo (André Holland), who quit both the U.S. and music after the death of his son. Although he doesn’t play anymore, Elliot remains an artist at heart, which is why the actual business of running the club falls to his friend Farid (Tahar Rahim), whose ill-fated decisions set the series’ plot in motion. That plot, which eventually involves Russian mobsters and several run-ins with the Paris police, is the thread that holds The Eddy together, but it’s also the weakest and least interesting part of the show—which, to its credit, seems fully aware of that fact. While Elliot and his struggles, which also include trying to connect with his wild, drug-abusing daughter, Julie (Amandla Stenberg), are constant throughout, the show shifts focus with each episode, most of which are titled for the character they follow. (The last is called simply “The Eddy.”) Two of the best, “Jude” and “Katarina,” center on characters who up to that point have barely figured in the narrative, like a musician stepping out of the darkness to give a show-stopping solo.
The trouble with The Eddy is it keeps confusing its received ideas of what’s dramatic with what’s actually interesting. The show keeps putting Julie in peril, getting her wasted and then sending her running through the streets asking strangers for coke as her father frantically searches for her, but there’s more genuine feeling in the quiet conversation they have later, when Elliot gently probes the depth of her knowledge about the history of black American artists taking up residence in Paris. There’s a depiction of Muslim funeral rites that’s breathtaking in its lyrical solemnity, and a wake that’s equally breathtaking in its expressions of joy. The stories come and go, sometimes without resolution, and that can be frustrating, but it also feels true to life. It’s just a shame that what’s pushing those stories out of the frame is a half-baked murder mystery and an equally canned plot about the Eddy’s house band trying to land a record deal.
The Eddy’s songs are written by Randy Kerber, who plays the band’s pianist, and Glen Ballard, a longtime pop producer best known for co-writing Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill—an odd pairing that results in some not especially memorable songs. That would be less of a problem if they didn’t feature so prominently. (There’s an extended performance segment in just about every episode.) But the way the music fits into The Eddy’s narrative is its smartest and most satisfying quality. Most of the band is made up of professional musicians with no acting experience, and the actors in the cast, namely Holland, Stenberg, and Joanna Kulig, who plays the band’s singer, either have musical backgrounds or have put in enough practice to hang with the pros. I was often reminded of Robert Altman’s Kansas City, which keeps breaking away from its underworld plot to watch some of jazz’s contemporary greats put their spin on bebop classics (and even more of his great, lost Jazz ’34, which does away with the plot altogether). The songs tend to repeat—you hear the title track and one called “Barfly” numerous times—but they function like reprises in musical theater, their moods evolving to fit where the characters are at that point in the story.
Music is what binds The Eddy’s characters together, but it’s more than that. It’s the community they inhabit, the water they swim in. Toward the end, there’s a moment when a character who’s been exiled from the band listens to one of their recordings at home and plays along with it, alone and yet not quite. It’s a powerful and—given the particular environment into which The Eddy is being released—especially moving reminder of how music can bring us into intimate contact with people we might never meet, even if we’re just listening to it and not making it. Fiction can do that too, of course. It’s just too bad The Eddy spends so much time trying to fill the air with notes, when it’s the space between them that gives them meaning.