Just by coincidence apparently, two narrative films open this week in theaters everywhere about Miles Davis and Chet Baker, trumpet players that were noted for their “cool” style and debilitating drug habits. They both can be described as attempts to “re-imagine” the musicians, a choice made by screenwriters and directors to avoid being confined by biopic conventions. Indeed, the term “biofic” might be coined to describe this genre since it blends fact and fiction, often at the expense of both art and the artist whose lives they seek to make more “dramatic”.
Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” is a total disaster. It is based on the premise that he bonded with a white Rolling Stone reporter who had come to his upper west side townhouse in the late 70s when the jazz legend had retired from the music scene and into a self-imposed cocaine haze. At first you are impressed with Cheadle’s ability to mimic his chronic hoarseness and glowering manner but it shortly becomes tiresome since it is a poor substitute for character development. There is a bit of mystery about why Davis stopped playing but it is obviously beyond the ability of Cheadle to offer some insights into why this happened.
It has been many years since I read Ian Carr’s “Miles Davis: the definitive biography” (a rather overweening title but accurate nonetheless). As I recall the section that dealt with his cocaine addiction and hermit-like existence on the upper west side is deeply compelling. Carr attributed the departure to a combination of sheer exhaustion from performing over a thirty-year period, physical ailments, and a paranoid tendency that made him want to avoid social contact. Once the cocaine habit kicked in, these tendencies were accentuated to the point of making it very difficult to break out of his shell.
Cheadle made an utterly inexplicable artistic decision to turn what could have been a powerful human drama into something resembling a Miami Vice episode. After Davis and the reporter (played by Ewan McGregor) show up at the head of Columbia records to wrangle over a tape that might serve as his return to recording and performing, it is purloined by a shady white executive and guarded by his gun-toting Black bodyguard. This leads to a series of confrontations involving car chases and gun battles that turn the jazz legend into a character out of a gangsta rap-inspired movie like “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”. In depicting the Rolling Stone reporter and Miles Davis as Black and white “buddies” taking on bad guys, it has the same kind of vibe as “Miami Vice”, “I Spy” or “48 Hours” but without the electricity. The film not only fails to deliver on Miles Davis the man but on the pop culture ambitions that Cheadle mistakenly took on.
In an interview with Rolling Stone (naturally), Cheadle explained what he was attempting:
Then, almost as an afterthought, I said, “I think we’ve got to make a movie about this dude as a gangster” — ’cause that’s how I feel about Miles Davis. He’s a G. All those apocryphal stories about how bold and dynamic he was, the gangster shit he’d do … you could fit all that into a biopic, I guess. But I just thought, let’s do a movie that Miles Davis would say, ‘I want to be the star of that movie. Not the one about me. The one where I’m the fucker running it, and I tell everybody what happens.’”
I had high hopes for this film based on a snippet that appeared on YouTube early on. It showed Davis performing a number from “Porgy and Bess” backed by Gil Evans and a full orchestra, petty much a recreation of a YouTube video that depicted the original performance.
In my fondest imagination, I saw the next scene with Gil Evans and Miles Davis sitting over dinner discussing racism or their love lives. Foolish me.
While I can recommend Robert Budreau’s “Born to Be Blue” as a serviceable drama starring Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker, it too takes liberties with the musician’s life in order to frame the story around a familiar plot that ostensibly catered to the audience’s expectations, namely a troubled romance between the musician and a Black actress named Jane who is entirely made up.
Not only was she a fiction, she was also supposedly playing Baker’s first wife in a biopic film within the film—an African-American as well. In fact, none of Baker’s wives were Black and the only purpose in introducing such a character was to serve as a peg in the plot development. When Baker meets her parents, they look askance at the musician who—like Davis—is temporarily out of the business. Not only is a longtime junky, he is second-rate compared to Davis in the opinion of Jane’s dad.
In an earlier scene, when Baker meets Miles Davis at a club in Los Angeles in the early 50s when Baker was voted over Davis in a Downbeat poll as musician of the year, Davis contemptuously tells him that he was “the great white hope”.
Besides Chet Baker and Jane, the other major character is Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie), the founder of Pacific Jazz records, the label that marketed the so-called West Coast style and where Baker was once a major figure until heroin sank him into oblivion, deepened by a beating Baker suffered on the streets of New York that left him without his front teeth.
For most men in the music business, including club owners, agents and other musicians, Baker had become untouchable. In a poignant scene, Baker shows up at Bock’s elegant home in Los Angeles to plead for a second chance. After Bock turns him away, Baker picks up a potted plant with the intention (we assume) of tossing it at the front door. Catching him approaching the door, Bock intercedes and decides to give him a second chance. Like all other films about musicians with a drug habit redeeming themselves such as those about Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, “Born to Be Blue” moves along a fairly predictable but likeable story of overcoming the odds.
Unlike the Miles Davis story, I had little knowledge about Baker’s life except the bare essentials. To give me a perspective on “Born to Be Blue”, I saw the highly regarded 1988 Bruce Weber documentary “Let’s Get Lost” (99 cents on Amazon streaming).
Made a year before his death, the result of falling from a second story window in an Amsterdam hotel (an apparent suicide), Baker is the epitome of the ravages left by a lifetime of heroin addiction. With his scabrous features and half-closed eyes, speaking barely above a whisper, Baker appears more dead than alive. Weber obviously found this “late” Chet Baker as photogenic after a fashion, just as he and other photographers had found the young Baker an irresistible Adonis.
In the early 50s, Baker was a combination of James Dean and an idealized version of a jazz musician that many young people were attracted to like moths to a flame, especially the women that Baker collected, exploited and then abandoned like a used condom.
They are interviewed in the film and in many ways are far more interesting than Baker, including the singer Ruth Young who had Baker pegged as a loser even though she found him irresistible. She is funny, smart and articulate—full of life as opposed to the walking dead Chet Baker. Her appraisal of Baker is consistent with the one made in “Born to Be Blue” but if your only knowledge of the trumpeter is based on these two films made by obvious fans, you don’t know the half of it.
In a two-part article (part one, part two) on Chet Baker for CounterPunch based on a 440-page biography by James Gavin, Jeff St. Clair reveals someone much more like Mr. Hyde than the Dr. Jekyll of the two films.
Baker was a beater. He would berate and slap and punch his wives and girlfriends, often in public. His wife Carol was repeatedly seen sporting a pair of black eyes. He tried to strangle his longtime girlfriend Ruth Young with a telephone cord and later broke into her apartment, looted the place and sold her grand piano to pay for drugs.
There is only a fleeting reference to Baker’s violence in the documentary, and none in the biopic. The directors obviously preferred to create an image of a man more preyed upon than a predator. “Re-imagining” Chet Baker might be more accurately described as sanitizing him.
He had it in for gays as well as women:
In keeping with his other prejudices, Baker was something of a homophobe and his growing mystique in the gay community of LA and San Francisco unnerved him. He was determined to set the record straight. “There was a very mixed reaction when I started singing,” Baker said. “In the first place, a lot people thought – foolishly so – that because of the way I sang I, y’know, liked fellars or something. I can only say that that’s a lot of bullshit.”
Not only that, he seemed to be the sort of person who would vote for Donald Trump:
Years later Baker came to resent Davis and other black musicians. He deprecated Davis’ revolutionary second Quintet and his excursions into fusion. “They aren’t even songs,” Baker fumed. He couldn’t play the music and didn’t understand it. Chet was also an early proponent of the notion of reverse discrimination. He believed that music critics didn’t take white musicians seriously and that he was being denied gigs and record deals because he was white.
Superficially alike as practitioners of a post-bebop “cool” style in the mid-50s, there were major differences between Davis and Baker both in terms of conception and execution. This is dramatized in their respective performances of “My Funny Valentine”, a tune that both musicians were identified with.
Without going into too many details, Miles Davis’s performance has a burning intensity while Baker’s is merely “pretty” by comparison. Ultimately, Miles Davis’s jazz is rooted in the blues tradition and can even be seen as a variation on Louis Armstrong with its bent notes and highly developed syncopation. Despite the fact that he preferred ballads as did Baker, there was always a feeling that the the slow tempo was much more akin to lava flowing down the side of a volcano than Tin Pan Alley.
I remember the day I became a Miles Davis fan. It was the summer of 1961 and I was sitting in a pizza parlor on Friday night when someone played “Summertime” on the jukebox, a tune off of Miles Davis’s “Porgy and Bess” album. My jaw dropped. What was that?
During my four years at Bard College, nobody ever played Chet Baker records in the dorm. The West Coast style was not exactly calculated to win the allegiance of aspiring beatniks. Indeed, as one interviewee in the Weber documentary put it, Baker’s sound was as rooted in the Los Angeles zeitgeist as the Beach Boys. Sunshine, girls and convertibles. And, just as was the case with Brian Wilson, it had nothing to do with Baker’s dark soul.
After graduating Bard, I gravitated to the New Thing in jazz, an avant-garde movement that bypassed Miles Davis and eventually became closely associated with the Black nationalist movement especially through the efforts of Archie Shepp who in many ways was simply extending the vision of predecessors like Max Roach and Art Blakey Jr.
Later on, as the New Thing faded (as did the Black nationalist movement that inspired it), I began to give West Coast jazz a hearing. Although this style is obviously associated with white musicians like Baker, Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz, it is wrong to assume that there was some kind of Chinese Great Wall that separated them. Keep in mind that the great Art Pepper, who made an echt West Coast record titled “Art Pepper + Eleven” led by Marty Paich, a West Coast figure of some stature, he also recorded with Miles Davis’s rhythm section in 1957 (Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones). If you heard this record without knowing the principals, you’d likely assume that Pepper was Black.
Also keep in mind that Miles Davis and Gil Evans collaborated on the “Birth of the Cool” record made in 1950 but that was first released in 1957. Two of the lead soloists besides Davis were associated with the burgeoning West Coast style: Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan.
My idea of a jazz film, either narrative or documentary, would explore how styles came into existence. For me, the development of a record like “Birth of the Cool” was far more dramatic than Miles Davis’s cocaine habit. Indeed, the most interesting moment in the Weber documentary involves the origins of the Mulligan/Baker pianoless quartet. It turns out that the two musicians were booked at the Haig, a small LA club, in 1952. When they arrived, they discovered that the piano had been removed from the stage since vibraphonist Red Norvo’s trio (an amazing group with Charlie Mingus on bass and Tal Farlow on guitar) had no need of the grand piano that had been brought in for an earlier engagement by Errol Garner. Once it had been stowed away in the cellar, Mulligan and Baker decided not to bother with a pianist. The result was considered one of the great moments in jazz and an indication of what Baker could have become if he hadn’t gotten hooked on heroin.