Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

New Jazz Biopics Riff on Familiar Formula

In some 80 years, the formula for a musical feature film has changed very little: From The Jazz Singer and The Jolson Story to1 The Glenn Miller Story and The Gene Krupa Story, ever since movies could talk, film goers have savored a good yarn concerning  familial conflict within and without the complicated, misunderstood, and stone cold wrecked lives of musicians. Truth is always better than fiction but for strictly commercial considerations, screenplays generally raise the stakes on untreated addictions, felled planes, philandering, domestic abuse, and mental illness, as if that were at all necessary. It appears that approximating the lives of professional road musicians as people is less important than adhering to the odd Hollywood recipe that contains reportage, entertainment, moralization, and glamorization in one 90-minute package.  As long as the tragedy (the triumph is usually incidental) is set to a toe-tapping beat and confirms what the general audience thinks it already knows about the hard-knock lives of working artists, there is potential for box office gold. The resulting tutorials on how to lead chaotic, short-lived, and tortured creative existences will always trump whatever a shelf full of well-researched biographies (i.e. books) have to say on the subject since, let’s face it, who reads those anymore? And so it is these depictions of fame, drugs, money, sex, guns, and all forms of excess cut to music that take the place in the public imagination where scenes at practice, contemplation, study, daydreaming, composing, performing, traveling, recording, reflection, playback, and in pursuit of other creative interests might’ve lived (with any likeness to any persons living or dead strictly coincidental).

Somewhere in this mix between sensational and substantive lives Don Cheadle’s directorial debut and star turn in Miles Ahead, and Ethan Hawke’s role as Chet Baker in Robert Budreau’s Born To Be Blue. The films concern trumpet players of considerable renown, one East Coast the other West, one black, the other white, both famous for charting their own paths of excellence while dogged by substance abuse and the insecurities that go with addiction.  All similarities stop there.

Miles Davis as most listeners know was a creative genius who continually broke musical boundaries and innovated in jazz and beyond it. Miles Ahead is a completely, though not entirely, fictionalized version of a time when Davis dropped out of the public eye in the mid-’70s. In the film, a Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor) drops in on the recluse in an attempt to deliver him from the brink of obscurity and excess (a reporter seeking the “comeback” story is another well-worn device). Cheadle has gone on record aplenty addressing viewer and critical concerns over the film’s fabrications, as well as the matter of having to include a white buddy (as portrayed by McGregor) in the script.  He nevertheless made the best film he could given the time, budgetary, and racist restraints of his business. But it his performance as Davis, portrayed alternately in his fit and fighting years and at the dawn of his more eccentric, latter days, that is pitch perfect (it’s likely Davis’s friends and contemporaries Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter would not have rubber-stamped the project had they thought any less).

10The conceivable tension and the stress that Davis was under, living contemporary life as a legend, is transmitted with precision by Cheadle, an actor who needn’t prove his versatility: Over the course of a distinguished career that’s extended for more than 30 years, from an early role opposite Denzel in Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress, to his current popularity in House of Lies, Cheadle is the epitome of excellence. In his new medium as a director he shines, delivering a film that strives for excitement in scope and dimension. He also demonstrates artistry in his choice of collaborators, from an impeccable cast (especially Emayatzy Corinealdi) to glorious set design, locations, and musical direction (Robert Glasper). The story itself however, co-written with Steven Baigelman, could’ve been less ham fisted and more finessed, though details like Davis’s training in composition, his taste for Chopin, Stravinsksy, and Ravel, and a life-changing police brutality incident based on fact all make it into the story, serving to portray Davis more as a multi-dimensional human and less of an icon.

In an early scene, McGregor’s character interviews Miles who notes he’s a Gemini, “I was born modal,” he says. “A little bit of this and that…” Reminded of Cheadle’s particularly entertaining and under-looked performance in Talk To Me, in which he played the real life DJ Petey Greene in amplified reality, I wondered if he was inspired to craft his own screenplay that was also not self-conscious in its departure from fact. Whatever the source of inspiration, from the high-pitched drama of Davis’s five years off-the-grid, to the more somber reckoning with getting back to work, Miles Ahead borrows  from the Hollywood biopic playbook, yet forges its own path toward developing a new kind of cinema in the spirit of improvisation associated with jazz itself.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is but one note that runs throughout Born To Be Blue, loosely based on the sad life of Chet Baker. Starring Ethan Hawke and focusing mostly on the post-1966 period during which Baker was kicking heroin, Born To Be Blue is more like a throwback to earlier jazz films in which the lead’s life is lost to a dream of music but is left instead to hiding inside an addiction. Losing his ability to play horn following a post-gig street hassle that forced him to relearn his instrument was indeed a fact of Baker’s life, though the movie twists the people and places surrounding the events. Baker lived as a heroin addict until his death in 1988, reportedly from a fall, and the film makes note of that fact too in its final notes.  In between there’s lots of bleeding, smoking, and cool California coastal scenery. Again, Hawke’s performance as the broken and addicted Baker is appropriately pathetic, though there are sparkles of redemption in his comeback, particularly in his choice to use his voice as an instrument. But whatever Born To Be Blue lacks in fact or focus, it delivers in the feel, the vibe and look of jazz; these are the black, white and blue tones, the sharp-dressed, cigarette dangling Cali and New York cool styles we’ve come to associate with the music’s ’50s and ’60s epoch.

Perhaps it’s set-dressing and soundtracks that the biopic is good for: Whether the scandal that rocked Jerry Lee Lewis’s world in Great Balls of Fire, or the plane crash that took out Ritchie Valens (La Bamba) and Buddy Holly (The Buddy Holly Story), sensational and sentimental do all right, but often its period detail that make or break the projects.  Scenery chomping performances are even better: Ray and Ring of Fire were fairly straight ahead versions of the crooked roads walked by iconic musicians Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx) and Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), but both films would’ve amounted to little more than catalog song-shilling opportunities were it not for their Oscar-worthy performances. More recent efforts like the Todd Haynes Dylan tribute, I’m Not There, the loose interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s life (Jimi: All Is By My Side, based on a discredited bio, adapted by John Ridley and starring André Benjamin) and Gus Van Zant’s Last Days, about Kurt Cobain, all took inside/out, post-modern, chuck-it-all-to the-wind, impressionistic approaches to storytelling (none were particularly satisfying). Straight Outta Compton took liberties by sanitizing the story of West Coast gangsta rappers NWA, while Love and Mercy mostly got it right, especially the scenes in which Paul Dano portrayed a troubled Brian Wilson, lost in the joy of composing. The forthcoming Nina, starring Zoe Saldana, would appear to be on the fast track to how not to handle the casting of a film about a beloved legend and her misdiagnosed mental illness. The critically acclaimed Coal Miner’s Daughter starring Sissy Spacek in an Oscar-winning performance as Loretta Lynn, may serve as the one exception to all the rules: A well-executed film about a woman in music who triumphs (though Patsy Cline’s plane crash figures in Lynn’s own story) is all too rare.

Both Miles Ahead and Born To Be Blue certainly fulfill the function of entertainment; the acting is sharp and the subject 635955409131711598-BTBB-Still5matter more interesting than the rest of what’s on offer at the multiplex; the depiction of the creative process and hands on music making that comprises much of a musician’s life is handled for the most part well. And yet, I found myself wanting something more, something that probably can’t be found in a simple music biopic. I went to both films looking to get lost, which is of course one reason we go to the movies in the first place. But more than that, I went in search of lost time—a time when movies had more weight, were handled with more care. Is this just me, hoping for a return to the forever of my own young life, when the biopic and music doc were still emergent? The movies that provided a portal to my own discovery, that excited and transported me with their  well-told, visual stories were released in a period coincident with own my nascent enthusiasm for jazz. Lucky enough to indulge in Round Midnight (in which the real Dexter Gordon plays a fictionalized composite character), the documentaries Thelonius Monk: Straight No Chaser and Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, there was also Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost, a stylized documentary on BakerThese films, plus my shelves lined with books of interviews with the musicians and the recordings themselves fed my understanding of a music I am still only in the infant stages of knowing. And yet, I understand enough to know that the ghost of Charlie Parker looms large over the new films about Baker and Davis. I thought persistently of Bird, the film Clint Eastwood made over 20 years ago on a budget of 9 million dollars for which Forest Whitaker should’ve earned an Oscar. If that makes me a product of my generation, then ah well, call me a traditionalist. And yet, the distinctly 21st Century biopics Miles Ahead and Born To Be Blue signal the future; they are the something new of biopics. Only a square would begrudge an artist for taking a step in a new direction.

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