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.

Filed under: film, Jazz, , , , , ,

Strange Feelin’: When Rock Meets Jazz









In July of 1969, while Neil Armstrong took his walk on the moon, here on earth, Tim Buckley and Miles Davis were taking their own giant steps toward where only few had gone before: Buckley changed his style and went jazz-rock on his acoustic odyssey Happy Sad, while Davis went entirely electric, forever changing jazz and launching fusion with In a Silent Way. Both men had their reasons for changing their songs… Dig these origins of the new music.

Davis’1959 album Kind of Blue had already revolutionized jazz, steering away from chord progression and toward modes or scales as the base for its jams. Contributing to Miles making the leap in his own music was his contemplation of the piano style of Ahmad Jamal. “In Jamal he recognized a kindred spirit and freely borrowed whatever he could from him,” wrote Jack Chambers in Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis. “Davis made no effort to conceal his debt.” Nor would Buckley try to hide his 10 years later when he used Miles’ “All Blues”, from Kind of Blue, as the inspiration for his vocal improvisations on “Strange Feelin’”, which opens Happy Sad. Improvisation, interpretation, and expression of influence are of course just a part of what makes jazz swing.

Buckley had been studying up on the music’s construction while hanging out at his Venice, California pad, listening to Miles and guitarist Gabor Szabo and saxophonist Roland Kirk, among other jazzers. He was a fan of the Modern Jazz Quartet, especially its vibraphonist Milt Jackson, who specialized in cool, and was inspired to secure a vibes player of his own, David Friedman, for his new lineup. In December of 1968, Buckley, with his 12-string acoustic, headed to Elektra Sound Recorders in Los Angeles with Friedman, Lee Underwood on lead guitar, Carter Collins on congas, and John Miller on acoustic bass for the recording of Happy Sad. The acoustic lineup was a switch, as was the absence of Buckley’s writing partner, Larry Beckett—an attempt to break free from the constraints of poetic social protest and into the revolution of his own mind. Guitarist Underwood recalls this period and his time with Buckley in his memoir, Blue Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered.

“Tim treasured his independence above all,” he wrote. “Right from the beginning, the music industry’s business categories never fit. Buckley was unique. He played Buckley music.” As a singer-songwriter Buckley appreciated the spirit of Fred Neil and his acolyte Richie Havens, both of whom pushed folk’s limits with the use of suspended chords and improvisatory jams. Underwood confirms the genesis of “Strange Feelin’” as the result of Buckley walking in on Friedman and Miller playing Miles’ “All Blues” at the recording session.

With roots planted in the same American soil that sprouted the work and sacred songs that bloomed into blues and R&B, it was inevitable that by the mid-’60s, post-bop/modern jazz and rock (which was doing its Beatles/Dylan self-contained band and singer-songwriter thing) would meet. Twenty-two-year-old composer and pianist Herbie Hancock had pointed the way in 1962 when he used the blues as a base for “Watermelon Man” and scored a pop hit with it; he was then promptly snapped up by Miles for his band. Young guitarist Larry Coryell created a synthesis in 1966 when, with drummer Bob Moses and saxophonist Jim Pepper, he formed the Free Spirits. They released one album, Out of Sight and Out of Sound, before Coryell left the group and went on to conquer the world of jazz fusion guitar, while Jeremy Steig, with Jeremy and the Satyrs, gave jazz-rock-fusion a shot in 1968, too (you may know Steig’s “Howlin’ for Judy” as the main sample from the Beastie Boys track, “Sure Shot”). Though one-offs, Coryell and Steig had succeeded in bringing a touch of rock’s freaked-out psychedelic vibe to jazz, while freaked-out rockers were getting all jazz-like. As Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, and Jerry Garcia were taking soloing and improvisation to new extremes, rockin’ the jazz organically grew: The Doors specialized in Miles-forged modalities, while acts diverse as Blood Sweat and Tears, Frank Zappa, and England’s Soft Machine all drew from variations on jazz themes. So too did Van Morrison on his singer-songwriter-folk-jazz-solo-acoustic album Astral Weeks in 1968, for which real jazzers (including bassist Richard Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay) were hired for the sessions.

On the Miles side, this was the period in which he was said to have proclaimed, “I could put together the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band you ever heard.” Until then, he assembled a great band period for the recording of In a Silent Way, its individual members going on to inform the direction of jazz fusion from those days forward. Convening at CBS Studios in February of 1969 were Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea on electric piano, Wayne Shorter on sax, Dave Holland on double bass, John McLaughlin on electric guitar, and Tony Williams on drums, with Joe Zawinul, the composer of  “In a Silent Way”, on organ. The album’s electric keyboard sounds would become identifiable as one of fusion’s prime instruments. Having opened the door to electric music on the albums just prior to In a Silent Way, Davis’ follow-ups, Bitches Brew and On the Corner, took melding new tastes and textures even further out, while fusion became the dominant direction for jazz in the ‘70s. In the wrong hands, fusion is a senseless mess, which is how it earned its bad rap. But in the hands of experts, it served as a gateway to funk and hip-hop and a great harmonizer between all styles. Hancock specifically would become fusion’s jazz warrior with the full synth sound of Head Hunters, but he’d been working the borders since his “Watermelon Man” was recorded by Afro-cuban bandleader Mongo Santamaria. Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” is said to have brought the funk rhythms to jazz as early as 1964; his slamming ‘80s “Rockit” period (on which DXT rocked the turntable) and the return of “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” with a rap by Us3, put Hancock at every juncture of rock ‘n’ rap and jazz.

Down through the years, it’s been widely acknowledged that Davis’ wife at the time, singer and scenester Betty (Mabry) Davis, exerted her rock ‘n’ soul interests on her husband, introducing him as she did to Hendrix, among other rock ‘n’ rollers. But it was all part of a logical progression for Miles, who had even tried the slogan “Directions in Music by Miles Davis” to lift him beyond the limits of just jazz. Buckley’s record company had tried a slogan to describe him too—“Buckley music”—though Buckley liked “heart music” to describe his work, if in fact he had to have a label at all. “I feel proud of Happy Sad,” writes Buckley guitarist and friend Underwood. “Rough spots and all. Its heartsong flies in spring’s blue skies outside of time. Some of the music on it will last for decades to come.” True that, though it would take another folk-singing switch-hitter to turn rock toward jazz and into something entirely new, and then sustain that direction for the rest of her career: Joni Mitchell had also studied Miles, and following a period of woodshedding with the blue notes in 1971, she released Blue. Composed with alternate tunings and unusual juxtapositions of notes, the album was a game-changer in pop and certainly a milestone for Mitchell, who steadily moved into regions you could only call “Mitchell music.”

I asked my friend Pat Thomas, who leads the contemporary jazz-prog-rock consortium Mushroom, to weigh in on the subject of jazz and rock, and he pointed to 1970 England and Soft Machine’s Third,another considered classic of the genre. “Some of the most over-the-top fuzzed-out and distorted playing I’ve ever heard,” he says. The Soft Machine’s meeting of jazz, rock, and classical also equals the birth of prog, another subject for another column. Jazz-rock-prog is alive and kicking on Mushroom’s latest, Naked, Stoned & Stabbed, an adventure in Afro, Latin, and jazz rhythmics mixed with freaked-out folk, blues bases, and ambient, Alice Coltrane-trance states. Like Tortoise, Mushroom use music—all music—to travel outta sight and outta sound. If you’ve got any contemporary or classic fusion faves, we’d love to hear your comments, as you’ve just read some of mine save for one:

In 2007, though you couldn’t call it fusion, you wouldn’t call it rock, though you might call it jazz, two legends collided after four decades of music making. River: The Joni Letters, was a collection of mostly Mitchell songs performed by Herbie Hancock, joined by Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, and special guest vocalists for the sessions. The jazz cats would call it too much, but I think it’s out of this world. Better yet, leave off the label and just call it Music: It’s the next big thing.–published May 13, 2010 in Crawdaddy!

Filed under: Jazz, , , , ,

Tweet Tweet

Recent Posts

Browse by subject or theme