Finding right pitch is key to music biopics, as Miles Ahead and Born to be Blue show

Films about the lives of jazz greats Miles Davis and Chet Baker are the latest evidence famous musicians and their art are usually too complex to be tidily summed up in one big-screen package

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2016, 7:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 April, 2016, 7:00am

Pity the filmmaker who attempts to capture musical genius on screen.

The thrills that a brilliant performer creates on stage for an admiring audience do not easily translate from three dimensions to two. Even the most skilled actors tend to emulate – not inhabit – the persona of a singular musician. And directors and screenwriters face inherent, persistent conflict between what really happened and what raises dramatic sparks on film.

Two new jazz movies – Miles Ahead, about Miles Davis, and Born to be Blue, about Chet Baker – crystallise these challenges, though one proves far more successful than the other.

I hasten to note that the occasional miracle has occurred, with some films managing to convey at least a sense of a great musician’s art and manner. Gary Busey practically became the protagonist in The Buddy Holly Story (1978); director Bertrand Tavernier evoked the joys and melancholy of the jazz life in ’Round Midnight (1986); Joaquin Phoenix illuminated the dark sides of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005); and co-directors Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba poetically told the story of Afro-Cuban jazz in the animated, Oscar-nominated masterpiece Chico & Rita (2010).

But in the wake of these appealing films, uncounted others have shown the perils of the music-bio genre. Remember Forest Whitaker portraying alto saxophone genius Charlie Parker as a drug-addled buffoon in Clint Eastwood’s plodding Bird (1988)? Cornel Wilde dripping fake blood on the piano in the pulpy Frederic Chopin biopic A Song to Remember (1945)? Director Damien Chazelle laughably presenting jazz as both gladiatorial sport and overwrought soap opera – complete with rock-and-roll drum playing – in the Oscar-nominated Whiplash (2014)?

These films, and piles more, attest to the hazards of trying to grasp on screen the most intangible of art forms: music.

Nowhere is the gulf between the elusive allure of a magnetic performer and the usually doomed attempt to document it more obvious than in actor-director Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead. A project years in the planning and years more in the making, Miles Ahead attempts to examine the period in the 1970s when trumpeter-conceptualist Davis dropped out of the scene. In effect, the film quixotically tries to address not only an iconic jazz artist’s life, but a particularly private chapter of it – quite a task.

Alas, to see Cheadle as Davis hobbling around his apartment and phoning a radio station asking for a piece of his music to be broadcast badly diminishes the subject. As Cheadle wanders Manhattan barking insults – presumably the film’s way of depicting Davis’ notoriously volatile personality – the legendary trumpeter appears slight, petty, insignificant. A plotline that has Davis and a fictional journalist chasing a stolen tape of Davis’ music, complete with car chase and gunfire, renders the towering musician more fool than visionary.

Even jazz – a music by its nature swathed in nocturnal glamour – looks dull, flat and prosaic in Miles Ahead. Compare Davis’ riveting concert appearances with Cheadle’s impersonation, and you have the difference between the palpable charisma of a jazz master and a smaller-than-life imitation. And a closing sequence in which former Davis collaborators such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter perform alongside younger musicians Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding and others feels more like promotion than anything else. What a sorry spectacle.

Director Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue fares better with a similarly ephemeral but decidedly less celebrated figure. In the 1950s, though, Chet Baker commanded a measure of popularity, his soft-spoken, plaintive trumpet work and practically whispered, high-pitched vocals attracting listeners with an easy accessibility and a West Coast, cool-jazz ethos.

But Baker suffered from chronic drug addiction, a subject that apparently never ceases to intrigue filmmakers drawn to jazz. Were it not for Ethan Hawke’s performance as a doomed Baker, Born to Be Blue might have devolved into another cliche on jazz and vice, complete with syringes. Hawke, however, gently evokes the plain-talking, vulnerable, oft-manipulative junkie shown in the fascinating Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost (1988).

Say what you will about the herky-jerky rhythms, non-linear structure and dreamy tone of both Baker films, Hawke’s characterisation shows the everyman simplicity and directness of Baker’s manner of speech, as well as the con-man charm that addicts often employ to get what they need. And when Hawke sings as Baker, the unadorned quality of his phrases and quiet intensity of his delivery remind you of what listeners admired in Baker’s minimalist crooning. Hawke doesn’t so much mimic the tone of Baker’s voice as burrow into the character of it.

Baker aficionados will be disappointed that we don’t hear the man’s silvery instrumental work in Born to Be Blue, that element provided by trumpeter Kevin Turcotte. And the poor souls asked to portray Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis in Born to Be Blue suffer quite the same fate as Cheadle does in Miles Ahead, turning larger-than-life artists into mere second bananas (or should we say third?).

But at least some of the essence of who Baker was comes across in the film, notwithstanding its many fictions, conceits and flat-footed passages.

In the end, though, both Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue remind us that what happens between a gifted musician and his fervent listeners occurs in real time, in real life. Everything else is but a facsimile.

Tribune News Service