Black, White, Jazz and Blues
Two new films examine the lives of legendary jazz players Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) and Miles Davis (Don Cheadle), with varying but engrossing effects.
“Who do you like better, me or Miles Davis?” asks Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) to a pair of adoring fans in the first few minutes of Born to Be Blue. It’s a fitting question given that both it and Miles Ahead, director-star (and Kansas City native) Don Cheadle’s biopic about Davis, are in current release.
Davis haunts Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue, appearing like a spectral force on the margins of the scenes, poised to cast some Godlike approval upon Baker, whose insecurities and addiction threaten him at every turn. On the other hand, the Davis of Miles Ahead has no such concerns — finding enemies at every turn threatening to rob him, libel him, swindle him and goad him into that dreaded “comeback” that all artists despise. The two films offer fascinating counterpoints, a study in opposites. Both attack the traditional form of the “jazz biopic” in decidedly different ways, both aspiring to break out of the conventional box that has hamstrung filmmakers and reduced the subjects of other music biographies like Bird and Walk the Line into formulaic ciphers. Both films play with the form, at times blurring the line between illusion and reality, between truth and exaggeration, between myth and history.
Writer-director Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue blends sequences of black-and-white with color to purposefully disorient the audience, using recreations of a 1966 film starring Baker that was never finished and subjecting him to a test of character worthy of Job. Beaten by drug dealers so severely that his teeth were knocked out in real life, Baker, already a star of the West Coast jazz scene, was forced to re-learn how to play the trumpet. This painful crucible provides the central goal of the movie, intensified by his battle with heroin addiction and his relationship with actress-musician Jane (Carmen Ejogo), who plays his ex-wife in the fictional ’66 film, a film which in reality was only proposed and never filmed. Budreau embraces these fictional conceits and composite characters in order to get inside Baker, who is beautifully and painfully portrayed by Hawke, exhibiting a vulnerability and complexity unlike any previous role. These formal and historical liberties free the film to move deeper into Baker’s psyche as exhibited by a devastating scene with Baker in an empty bathtub, mouth bleeding, trying to recover a playing technique honed for 28 years.
Baker’s contribution to jazz, beginning with his James Dean good looks, almost feminine vocals and cool, wistful improvisations, was a major part of West Coast jazz and provoked derision from East Coast musicians like Miles Davis. But the second half of Baker’s career charts when everything that came so naturally was marred by violence, heroin and hard living. Hawke’s now-lined face and fragile vocal acting, conveying a sense of someone who has “lived” a life, fits perfectly. One particularly resonant sequence occurs when Baker returns to his rural Oklahoma home, all sepia and earth tones, and must endure jabs about his “colored wife” from his musician father (Stephen McHattie), whose career Baker has obviously eclipsed. Living at home, pumping gas at a filling station and fielding calls from a parole officer monitoring him in the wake of a drug bust, Baker does his best to heal, realizing he can never go back — or home again. He sets a return to form and a performance at New York’s famed Birdland Jazz Club as his goal, playing dive bars and garnering little respect as he relearns his craft. Despite its artifice and historical liberties, or maybe because of them, Born to Be Blue is compelling and engaging. And although co-star Ejogo isn’t given as many chances to shine as Hawke, she brings a compassion and strength to her role that earns her the right to make the final dramatic decision of the film.
Miles Ahead is equally bold in its strategies but achieves a totally different result. “If you’re gonna say something, come with some attitude,” Cheadle’s aging Davis says to an offscreen interviewer in the opening scene. This then leads into a wild and wooly tale of Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) attempting to land an interview with Davis that turns into scoring drugs, gunfights and a frantic chase with the musician to retrieve a stolen tape of his latest recording. This fanciful conceit gives way to flashbacks of Davis’ turbulent relationship with wife Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) punctuated by brilliant visual transitions and beautifully grainy Super 16mm images that remind us of how movies used to look. The colors and light are as harsh and steely as the mirrors lined with cocaine and evoke the edgy, speedy, funky tones of Davis’ later works. But for all the fireworks and invention, Cheadle’s Davis is ultimately as impenetrable as Davis was himself. Braden is the only character we can emotionally tap into, so the result is an outsider’s view of Davis: tough, depressive, brilliantly innovative but never emotionally reachable. And the moments where the men connect, like punching a heavy bag in Davis’ inner sanctum or fighting the bad guys together among the spectators at a boxing match, ring hollow.
Zen philosopher Alan Watts wrote that most people are either prickly or gooey, and Miles Ahead takes the prickly route, leaving the gooey to Born to Be Blue. Each succeeds in its own way, with Miles Ahead testing our patience at times, perhaps fittingly. But it also exhibits a love of filmmaking that is always exhilarating when a first-time director gets to play with what Orson Welles called “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had.” Cheadle is clearly putting that train set through the paces and having a ball with it. Both films are movies made by grown-ups for grown-ups and, in these days of spandex superheroes, are welcome alternatives.