The on-screen stories (and music) of two jazz noteables who blazed creative paths to jazz glory, gratifies this life-long jazz fan!
“BORN TO BE BLUE” showcases trumpeter/crooner Chet Baker.
“MILES AHEAD” is a cinematic portrait of horn virtuoso Miles Davis.
Amidst the pulse-pounding, ear-drum shattering soundtracks blasting from comic hero action flicks, the music of Chet and Miles provide rhythms to assuage the cravings of jazz fans.
Writer-director Robert Budreau’s low-key portrait of melancholy jazzman Chet Baker stars Ethan Hawke, who is finding his stride as a nuanced thespian in his 45-year-old prime. Sometimes maturity is an asset for an actor—experience brings emotional depth and gravitas. Hawke (who somewhat facially resembles Baker) deserves the raves —and Oscar buzz—he’s earned as tragic trumpet maestro Baker—for which he learned how to play the trumpet (for the camera) and perform Baker’s signature crooning.
This jazzy romantic biopic gives us a slice of Baker in mid-career, when he gives up heroin for a short period, and tries to make a comeback. Hawke plays Baker as a charismatic seducer who loves his music more than anything, but needs help keeping his life together.
“I’ve got some habits,” he tells the actress he meets in a never-completed black-and-white Baker biopic (in real life it was never shot), who helps him to get back on his feet by nursing his wounds, physical and emotional. She teaches him how to be both a better man —and lover.
Upending the conventions of the musical rise-and-fall formula while still offering a relatively straightforward three-act narrative, the film is anchored by Hawke’s performance that ranks among the best of his career. There’s no expectation of a primer on Baker’s music as Budreau hasn’t made a live-action Baker resume, but rather a salute to the creativity of a tormented artist.
Baker rose to stardom in the 1950s with Gerry Mulligan’s quartet and then as a bandleader, but encountered personal and professional difficulties after developing a heroin addiction. As a crooner, he memorably caressed the lyrics and melody of a classic entry in the Great American Songbook, “My Funny Valentine” which fans consider his signature performance.
Ironically, in the early years, he was turned on to the music of Miles Davis, but it was his collaboration with baritone sax wizard Gerry Mulligan that became a driving force. Mulligan who had an ear for harmonies, and Baker’s subdued tone and gentle phrasing, created a dynamic combination which defined the cool jazz sound of the time.
Baker’s movie-star looks landed him in Hollywood, making his screen debut in the 1955 war film “Hell’s Horizon,” but turned down more acting work to set off on European tours.
Baker’s long addiction to heroin took hold and gradually his charmed life began to erode. In the midst of a late-career resurgence and weeks after delivering a lauded performance in The Netherlands, Baker was found dead outside his Amsterdam hotel in the early hours of May 13, 1988. His second-floor room window was open and drugs were found in his system, although it was never known whether his death was accidental or not.
Its an oft quoted axiom that artists suffer for their art. For Chet Baker the phrase is chiseled in stone, but for fans, there is a glorious uplifting legacy of musical notes.
“MILES AHEAD” is a moving exploration of one of 20th century music’s
creative geniuses, Miles Davis, featuring a career defining performance
by Oscar nominee Don Cheadle in the title role. Working from a script he
co-wrote, Cheadle’s bravura directorial debut wavers from the conventional bio-pic to no-holds barred portrait of a singular artist in crisis.
In the midst of a dazzling and prolific career at the forefront of modern jazz innovation, Miles Davis (Cheadle) virtually disappears from public view for a period of five years in the late 1970s. Alone and holed up in his home, he is beset by chronic pain from a deteriorating hip, his musical voice stifled and numbed by drugs and pain medications, his mind haunted by unsettling ghosts from the past.
Davis’ mercurial behavior is fueled by memories of his failed marriage to the talented and beautiful dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). During their romance and subsequent marriage, Frances served as Davis’ muse.
It was during this period that he released several of his signature recordings including the groundbreaking“Sketches of Spain” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” The idyll however, was short lived. The eight-year marriage was marked
by infidelity and abuse, and Frances was forced to flee for her own safety
as Miles’ mental and physical health deteriorated. By the late ’70s, plagued by years of regret and loss, Davis flirts with annihilation until he once again finds salvation in his art.
The long-gestating passion project about a particularly fraught period in Miles Davis’ life in the late ‘70s, has been nurtured with care by Cheadle. In addition to stepping into the legendary jazz musician’s complicated shoes, Cheadle also directed the film, co-wrote it, and even contributed to some of the film’s original musical arrangements. That’s to say nothing of him learning how to play the trumpet, in order to do proper justice to Davis’ work as authentically as possible. The film chronicles, in non-linear fashion, much of the chaotic period in the musician’s life when a mixture of destructive life choices and drug abuse drove Davis out of the spotlight, out of music, and very nearly out of his mind.
It’s hard to say how much of a comercial draw both films will be. There’s obviously more appeal to jazz purists, but the stories behind the music of the two giants who shaped a new rhythmic “bop” and “cool” era is a fascinating insight as to how they achieved their goals.
“BORN TO BE BLUE” and “MILES AHEAD” are showing in selected markets but will be available on various home release platforms.
Written by Alex Reynolds