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All that Hollywood jazz

Don-Cheadle-in-Miles-Ahead.jpgDon Cheadle as Miles Davis.

What are the odds that we'd be watching not one but two movies out in theaters the same week about famously dysfunctional jazz trumpeters, each of whom got his start working with the legendary Charlie Parker, and met their premature ends within a few years of each other, ravaged by drugs and hard living?

Hollywood loves brilliant, tormented artists, but even when their actual lives are colorful and lurid enough--as Chet Baker's and Miles Davis's surely were--writers and filmmakers still can't resist further embellishment.

So we have Ethan Hawke reincarnating Baker--who appeared in several movies beginning in the 1950s--in the midst of starring in his own fictitious mid-'60s biopic as a framing device for an impressionistic account of Baker's erratic career. But since Baker's early years had already inspired a real movie in 1960 (All the Fine Young Cannibals, starring Robert Wagner as jazz trumpeter "Chad Bixby"), what's the point of gratuitously inventing another one?

Similarly, we have Miles, as depicted by veteran actor Don Cheadle in his first feature-film outing as a writer-director, cast as the action hero of a "Lethal Weapon" in reverse--set during Miles' "lost years" of 1975-80, the black guy is dangerously crazy and the hapless white guy (Ewan McGregor, playing a conniving Rolling Stone journalist) is improbably dragged along on the wild ride. And here--spoiler alert!--the mainspring of the plot is not only entirely invented as well, it's what Hitchcock called a "MacGuffin." Ultimately, an irrelevant distraction.

Both movies have their pleasures: Hawke gives a fine and understated performance emphasizing Baker's sensitive and vulnerable qualities, while Cheadle's depiction of Miles entertainingly doubles down on what NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates recently called his "badassery." In this case, not content with simply portraying a brilliant musician who uncompromisingly blazed his own artistic path in a white-dominated industry, Cheadle went full blaxploitation--Superfly with a horn, flash with the ladies, equally handy with guns or fists, who mau-maus the record label weasels and cons a journalist into scoring his dope and driving his getaway car. And the thing is, while "Miles Ahead" feels over the top much of the time, various biographies and accounts like this Esquire piece suggest that even so it may not be that far off the actual mark.

If anything, the real Chet Baker story was even more tragic than the scenario laid out in "Born To Be Blue," and was unforgettably told in Bruce Weber's 1988 documentary "Let's Get Lost." It contrasted Baker in the 1950's, captured in film clips as a gorgeous young man in his prime, with the gaunt and toothless wreck he'd become by the end of his life. A few months before the film's release, Baker fell to his death from the balcony of his second-floor Amsterdam apartment. Heroin and cocaine were found in his room, and in his system. He was 58.

A few years later, when I saw Miles Davis perform at the Hollywood Bowl in 1991, I could not have known it would be his final performance. He was, frankly, terrible. He barely played more than a few notes, unmemorably, spending most of the set in silence at the darkened rear of the stage, back to the audience as was his custom. Puzzling and deeply disappointing, I thought. So I was saddened, and somehow still shocked, when he died at 65 only a month later, in Santa Monica, of what was described as respiratory distress. At the time, a journalist in a position to know told me the actual cause of death was AIDS--that is, a secondary infection that his immune system, presumably infected during years of injection-drug use throughout the '70s and '80s, couldn't fight off. But while it's been widely rumored since, it's never been confirmed and likely never will be.

The Hollywood treatment of anything is always a mixed bag. While it has the salutary effect of introducing potentially thousands if not millions of moviegoers to interesting and significant protagonists and story lines, the dictates of drama invariably mean that characters, events, and narratives are all negotiable. Yet such is the power of cinema that it confers an authenticity that turns every film into a de facto documentary, and movie audiences little note nor long remember the complex and layered reality behind the shimmering spectacle arrayed before us.

Still, in an era dominated by endless superhero sequels, action franchises, and lame TV series reboots, we should be grateful for any relief from such mindless distractions. Let us reward those actors and filmmakers who--like Chet Baker and Miles Davis--struggle to create their art within a cruel and mercenary system, yet manage to transcend its limitations and leave behind something of lasting beauty and significance.


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