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Birth of the cruel

Both Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue find their subjects in the midst of career lows

Young man with a horn becomes middle aged man with a gun. Music is a tough business.
Young man with a horn becomes middle aged man with a gun. Music is a tough business.

The Miles Davis moment continues. The jazz (sorry, social music) trumpet legend and subject of director, star, and co-writer Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead already showed up for a sort of preview appearance in last week’s jazz trumpet biopic, Born to be Blue. That one is about Chet Baker, but even so, Davis is the film’s guiding star: Baker is crushed by his idol’s casual dismissal, and spends the entire film trying for a second chance to impress the master. Now it’s Davis’s turn in the spotlight, which creates a mostly unflattering glare even as it illuminates his genius. (Not that there’s much agony about it: even though lost love helps to give the story shape, it’s clear throughout that Davis wanted to be a great artist much more than he wanted to be a good man.)

Video:

Miles Ahead

Both films find their subjects in the midst of career lows: Baker is in prison for drugs; Davis is largely entombed in his apartment, paralyzed by his own legacy (plus a number of chemicals). It’s been five years since he’s released anything, and his label is impatient to hear the results of a recent session tape. Even his fans have lost the thread: a Davis tribute on the radio rhapsodizes over his early work, but our hero knows the past is dead, man. Cheadle renders this late-period Davis as a man who wears his own face like a mask, and usually throws gigantic shades on top to boot. He has to: the eyes are still expressive, betraying the desperate fear behind the big talk and brash action that follow: can I still do this? And that’s the big difference between Born to be Blue and Miles Ahead: Baker wants to get back to where he was, while Davis wants to find his way forward.

Movie

Born to Be Blue **

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Quasi-biopic that asks the question, Why should the artist prize the love of a good woman when heroin will do just fine? One possible answer: if the woman is good enough, she won’t land you in an Italian prison the way drugs might. She might even give you the strength to straighten up and fly right. And so: we open with West Coast jazz legend Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke, muted and moody) lying on a hard stone floor, reaching out for a tarantula that has just crawled from the bell of his horn. (Symbolism!) But then: salvation? A proposed biopic — starring the man himself — gets him sprung, and though it flounders, it allows Baker to meet Jane (Carmen Ejogo, winsome and self-possessed), the actress playing his wife. Their first scene together is Baker’s debut at Birdland, where he is cast down from the mountaintop by a dismissive Miles Davis, who tells him to do some living and then come back. At first, living mostly means dying: drugs, the aforementioned prison, and getting his teeth knocked out. But Jane perseveres, and so does her man. Hawke’s performance ably conveys the painful, humble work of climbing back up the mountain, and writer-director Robert Budreau mostly sticks to beauty over prettiness, and the nature of practice over the magic of talent. Only the ending is strange: narratively forced and yet seemingly inevitable.

Find showtimes

What shakes him out of his seeming stupor — and provides the film with its genre-busting car chase of an opening — is the arrival of a would-be journalist (Ewan MacGregor, suitably unkempt) who is eager to pen a profile and call it a comeback, despite the protestations of his subject. Their first stop is Columbia records, and suddenly it’s clear why the creative juices won’t run: in one room, you’ve got an exec who wants to cash in before you crap out, a lawyer who reminds you that what you make is not your own, a heavy who’s ready to enforce his master’s will, a promoter who wants to use you as a stepping stone, and a young prodigy who knows who you are but also knows he’s next, not to mention the vampiric scribbler with whom you walked in. Is it any wonder Davis pulls a gun?

Movie

Miles Ahead **

thumbnail

Miles Davis biopic, less about making art than it is about everything that gets in the way of that —mostly commerce, but also relationships: some old (a lost love), some new (a pesky journalist looking to tell a comeback story), and some ongoing (an even more pesky recording industry looking for a session tape). At the story’s outset, the jazz trumpet legend is entombed in his apartment: it’s been five years since he’s released any new music, and even his fans have lost the thread: a Davis tribute on the radio rhapsodizes over his early work, but our hero knows the past is dead, man. He wants to be an artist, not a legend, and despite star (and director and co-writer) Don Cheadle’s benumbed countenance, the fear in his eyes makes it clear that he’s anxious on that score — <em>can I still do this</em>? The historical stuff shows up in steady beats inspired by the present-day action, which keeps it from feeling too fusty. Ultimately, Cheadle’s labor of love prizes the music-making over the music, and maybe even over the man.

Find showtimes

That meeting sets the story in motion: it’s less about art and creativity, and more about everything that gets in the way of that (mostly commerce). The biopic part shows up in frequent flashbacks, triggered by this or that moment in the quasi-comedic goings on. It’s a smart move on Cheadle’s part, and it produces a number of startling, seemingly revelatory transitions between present and past. By the end, it doesn’t matter much what sort of music the man is making; what matters is that he makes it.

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Young man with a horn becomes middle aged man with a gun. Music is a tough business.
Young man with a horn becomes middle aged man with a gun. Music is a tough business.

The Miles Davis moment continues. The jazz (sorry, social music) trumpet legend and subject of director, star, and co-writer Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead already showed up for a sort of preview appearance in last week’s jazz trumpet biopic, Born to be Blue. That one is about Chet Baker, but even so, Davis is the film’s guiding star: Baker is crushed by his idol’s casual dismissal, and spends the entire film trying for a second chance to impress the master. Now it’s Davis’s turn in the spotlight, which creates a mostly unflattering glare even as it illuminates his genius. (Not that there’s much agony about it: even though lost love helps to give the story shape, it’s clear throughout that Davis wanted to be a great artist much more than he wanted to be a good man.)

Video:

Miles Ahead

Both films find their subjects in the midst of career lows: Baker is in prison for drugs; Davis is largely entombed in his apartment, paralyzed by his own legacy (plus a number of chemicals). It’s been five years since he’s released anything, and his label is impatient to hear the results of a recent session tape. Even his fans have lost the thread: a Davis tribute on the radio rhapsodizes over his early work, but our hero knows the past is dead, man. Cheadle renders this late-period Davis as a man who wears his own face like a mask, and usually throws gigantic shades on top to boot. He has to: the eyes are still expressive, betraying the desperate fear behind the big talk and brash action that follow: can I still do this? And that’s the big difference between Born to be Blue and Miles Ahead: Baker wants to get back to where he was, while Davis wants to find his way forward.

Movie

Born to Be Blue **

thumbnail

Quasi-biopic that asks the question, Why should the artist prize the love of a good woman when heroin will do just fine? One possible answer: if the woman is good enough, she won’t land you in an Italian prison the way drugs might. She might even give you the strength to straighten up and fly right. And so: we open with West Coast jazz legend Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke, muted and moody) lying on a hard stone floor, reaching out for a tarantula that has just crawled from the bell of his horn. (Symbolism!) But then: salvation? A proposed biopic — starring the man himself — gets him sprung, and though it flounders, it allows Baker to meet Jane (Carmen Ejogo, winsome and self-possessed), the actress playing his wife. Their first scene together is Baker’s debut at Birdland, where he is cast down from the mountaintop by a dismissive Miles Davis, who tells him to do some living and then come back. At first, living mostly means dying: drugs, the aforementioned prison, and getting his teeth knocked out. But Jane perseveres, and so does her man. Hawke’s performance ably conveys the painful, humble work of climbing back up the mountain, and writer-director Robert Budreau mostly sticks to beauty over prettiness, and the nature of practice over the magic of talent. Only the ending is strange: narratively forced and yet seemingly inevitable.

Find showtimes

What shakes him out of his seeming stupor — and provides the film with its genre-busting car chase of an opening — is the arrival of a would-be journalist (Ewan MacGregor, suitably unkempt) who is eager to pen a profile and call it a comeback, despite the protestations of his subject. Their first stop is Columbia records, and suddenly it’s clear why the creative juices won’t run: in one room, you’ve got an exec who wants to cash in before you crap out, a lawyer who reminds you that what you make is not your own, a heavy who’s ready to enforce his master’s will, a promoter who wants to use you as a stepping stone, and a young prodigy who knows who you are but also knows he’s next, not to mention the vampiric scribbler with whom you walked in. Is it any wonder Davis pulls a gun?

Movie

Miles Ahead **

thumbnail

Miles Davis biopic, less about making art than it is about everything that gets in the way of that —mostly commerce, but also relationships: some old (a lost love), some new (a pesky journalist looking to tell a comeback story), and some ongoing (an even more pesky recording industry looking for a session tape). At the story’s outset, the jazz trumpet legend is entombed in his apartment: it’s been five years since he’s released any new music, and even his fans have lost the thread: a Davis tribute on the radio rhapsodizes over his early work, but our hero knows the past is dead, man. He wants to be an artist, not a legend, and despite star (and director and co-writer) Don Cheadle’s benumbed countenance, the fear in his eyes makes it clear that he’s anxious on that score — <em>can I still do this</em>? The historical stuff shows up in steady beats inspired by the present-day action, which keeps it from feeling too fusty. Ultimately, Cheadle’s labor of love prizes the music-making over the music, and maybe even over the man.

Find showtimes

That meeting sets the story in motion: it’s less about art and creativity, and more about everything that gets in the way of that (mostly commerce). The biopic part shows up in frequent flashbacks, triggered by this or that moment in the quasi-comedic goings on. It’s a smart move on Cheadle’s part, and it produces a number of startling, seemingly revelatory transitions between present and past. By the end, it doesn’t matter much what sort of music the man is making; what matters is that he makes it.

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