Jazz Biopics of Chet Baker & Miles Davis

Michael Wood (The London Review of Books) reviews Born to Be Blue and Miles Ahead
The places were Philadelphia and New York, the names were John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bill Evans and a few others, heirs to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, spoken of with awe in every version of the story. Something called West Coast jazz, thought by many to be an oxymoron, was making itself heard in the persons of Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Shelly Manne and Dave Brubeck. Davis made the albums Birth of the Cool in 1957 and Kind of Blue in 1959.

A few years earlier, in 1953, Baker had won the DownBeat magazine award for Best Trumpet of the Year, and Davis had this to say about it in his autobiography: ‘I think he knew he didn’t deserve it over Dizzy and a lot of other trumpet players. I didn’t hold it against him personally, although I was mad at the people who picked him.’ In Robert Budreau’s film Born to be Blue, Baker plays at about this time to an audience that includes Davis and Gillespie. Gillespie is friendly, Davis is patronising. The playing was sweet, he says, ‘like candy’. He advises Baker to come back when he has ‘lived a little’. Baker takes this to mean shooting up more heroin than he already is, and wandering into trouble whenever he can. ‘Trouble’s good for you’ is one of his more memorable lines in the movie. He gets beaten up when he fails to pay a drug debt, loses his teeth, has to learn to play again – there’s an excruciating scene where he is sitting in a bathtub, bleeding profusely as he tries to form what used to be his embouchure. He gives up the heroin, finds a nice girlfriend, marries her and expects her to find her life’s meaning in her devotion to him (Davis does the same in Miles Ahead, another new jazz movie). Then Baker plays for Davis and Gillespie again, this time in Birdland in New York. He performs brilliantly, at least that’s what the story if not the sound intimates, but he can’t do it without drugs. End of marriage, end of movie. Baker drifts off back into his real-life counterpart’s biography, leaving America to die years later in Amsterdam. […]


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Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead, with Cheadle himself playing Davis, is a much better film, because it has a more complex idea of its central character, but it does waste a lot of time with flaccid movie material: an over-played gangster and his hit man, much pistol waving on the part of Davis, and a ludicrous car chase. And it does tell essentially the same tale, prompting a question about time and success in jazz stories, and perhaps in celebrity stories more generally. Why can’t we see early success as anything other than a burden? In Born to be Blue, Baker makes a comeback, and then has to make a comeback from that, but where is the youngster who made this story possible? Similarly, Miles Ahead picks up its hero in the 1970s when Davis is famous but not making music – ‘from 1975 until early 1980 I didn’t pick up my horn,’ Davis says in his autobiography. A Rolling Stone reporter (played by Ewan McGregor) wants to write his story, and Davis reluctantly agrees. They hang out and have adventures for the rest of the film, though fortunately we, if not they, are distracted by many flashbacks, some of them to several different periods of Davis’s life at once. Collecting some cocaine from a dealer, Davis sees a row of his old albums on a shelf, including Sketches of Spain and Some Day My Prince Will Come. He looks angry, as if his old fame belonged to someone else, a case of mistaken identity. He finds a new musical persona by the end of the movie: the once cool city cat of the early work becomes the brooding hippie of the later albums and rock concerts, a sort of garishly dressed rolling stone. I found the end of the film persuasive, in part because I like Davis’s late style and in part because the idea of his needing to change in order to remain himself is thoughtfully worked out. But the film’s choosing not to relate the first years except as the object of a difficult, denied nostalgia does seem to be part of a myth of success: only the broken years count, along with the final redemption. [Read the Full Review]

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