It’s rare that you get a film biography of one jazz legend, let alone two, but music fans have a relative embarrassment of riches with the release of two, shall we say fictionalized looks at two eminently talented jazz artists, Miles Davis in Miles Ahead, and Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue.
Shootouts, heists, car chases…these may not be the first things that come to mind when you think of jazz trumpet icon Miles Davis, yet they’re all present in Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s somewhat fanciful look at a period in the late 1970s when Davis was on a self-imposed retreat from recording and performing. The premise here is that some unsavory players in the music business have made off with a tape of a rare Davis studio session—and Davis, along with his would-be Rolling Stone interviewer (Euan McGregor), try like the dickens to get it back. The film shifts between the foreground action (an amalgam of the buddy movie and 70s crime drama), and flashbacks to Davis’s 1950s romance and subsequent troubled marriage to dancer Helene Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), which falls apart partly because of Davis’s infidelity (and occasional brutality)—and partly because of his demand that she give up her own career.
Cheadle, who also directed and co-wrote (with Steven Baigelman), does a good job of nailing down Davis’s signature raspy delivery, as well as conveying a not-so-peculiar blend of arrogance and neediness that seems to be par for the course for somewhat tormented artists. Cheadle’s Davis is as passionate and uncompromising when it comes to his “social music” (as he calls it), as he is about scoring cocaine (the film suggests that Davis finds it necessary to alleviate his troublesome hip condition). Cheadle’s acting chops go a long way but a little more music and a little less intrigue might have helped create a fuller picture of the artist—and convince the uninitiated that they should care more about the hunt for Davis’ missing music.
Miles Davis also plays a role in Born to Be Blue, a haunting look at trumpet player/singer Chet Baker’s struggles in the 1960s—after a vicious beating (over drugs) left him toothless and struggling to regain his musical artistry, all the while trying to maintain the love of a good woman—and overcome his addiction to heroin. Like Miles Ahead, the film shifts between this pivotal time in Baker’s life, and his period in the 1950s when he was considered handsome and hip, but not yet a true artist since, in Davis’ view, he hasn’t lived enough.” (Davis is not the central character here, but the portrait in this film is a little unflattering, as he comes off as an envious, powerful and manipulative figure—kind of like a capo in the jazz world).
Like Miles Ahead, Born to Be Blue plays loosely with the facts, but comes out as a truer picture of the artist and the man. Ethan Hawke does his best work yet as the soft-spoken, intensely driven singer/musician who will do just about anything to be able to play the music. Hawke’s Baker also possesses a self-destructive streak that won’t ever allow him to enjoy five minutes of happiness, and a needy side (like Davis) that demands full devotion from his girlfriend (nicely played by Carmen Ejogo), even at the expense of her own career. The film captures the flavor of the East Coast jazz scene in the1950s via stylized smoky black and white flashbacks, and the West Coast of the 1960s where Baker is testing his chops in the idyllic California sunset (and low-rent clubs). For Baker, it’s all about the music, and if it means adjusting his style (to suit the facial muscles smashed in the wake of his beating)—and breaking some promises to recapture his artistry—so be it. The final section, depicting his comeback at Birdland in NYC, hits all the right notes—and is eventually devastating. While it’s not for all tastes, if you have an interest in jazz or Baker, Born to Be Blue might be the film for you.