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Reviews of MILES AHEAD and BORN TO BE BLUE

May 2, 2016

Trumpeters live rough lives. That is the message I got from watching two movies about famous trumpeters today.

I went to the Sun-Ray to see MILES AHEAD, the pseudo-biopic of Miles Davis. It was co-written by, directed by, and starred Don Cheadle as Miles Davis. Cheadle also plays a lot of the trumpet parts in the movie. He does great work as Davis. He doesn’t completely disappear into the role, but he fairly embodies it. The centerpiece of the movie is a fictional “interview” gone awry with a Rolling Stone writer named Dave Brill, played by Ewan McGregor. This interview never actually took place, and there was no Dave Brill working for Rolling Stone, so this was an odd choice to make, story-wise. However, the interactions between the two actors are entertaining, which is something that a lot of biopics aren’t. If you think of the movie as not a true biopic, but a movie featuring the character of Miles Davis, that happens to include biographical elements (Sort of along the lines of last week’s ELVIS & NIXON), you may find something to like in the film. You may also discover Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances Taylor, Miles’s ex-wife. She is beautiful and will hold your attention each moment she is onscreen. She stands toe to toe with Cheadle in their scenes together. I hope to see her in many more movies. The film shows how the celebrity lifestyle, including drugs of course, can take its toll on a marriage. If you can throw away a woman like Frances, it is understandable that you might go into a virtual exile for years, which is Miles’s status at the beginning of the movie. He hasn’t recorded in 5 years and people are pressuring him to get something on tape. There are plenty of examples of Miles’s music all throughout the film, mostly in mere snippets. We get a taste of his music while getting a picture of the man. If you enjoy rough movies about musicians, and movies that are not linear and jump around in time a bit, you may like MILES AHEAD.

My second movie about a trumpeter was BORN TO BE BLUE, which is more of a straight biopic about Chet Baker, one of the pioneers of West Coast cool jazz. I caught it on demand from Comcast. In addition to being a great jazz trumpeter, he was also a rather decent vocalist. Ethan Hawke plays Baker as the white trumpeter looking to impress Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, and trying to live up to the musical influence of his idol, Charlie Parker. After playing a gig at Birdland in 1954, Miles tells Baker to come back after he’s lived some, meaning that Miles thinks Chet is a little green. Then the movie movies forward to 1966, after Baker has done a little more living and then gets viciously beaten by drug dealers, who knock out his teeth, making it extremely difficult to play trumpet. Baker loved his heroin, you see, much like Miles Davis loved his coke. Baker recuperates under the loving care of Jane. a beautiful, light-skinned actress played by Carmen Ejogo (she played Coretta Scott-King in SELMA). Baker dated multiple black women in the 50s and 60s, but this was not touched on as being all that scandalous in the film, which somewhat surprised me. This movie was more linear in its storytelling, with the occasional odd flashback to a scrapped biopic that Chet Baker was making prior to his attack. The standouts are Hawke, who does really good work in this; Ejogo, who is luminous; and the music of Chet Baker. Hawke does his own singing and gets the feeling of Baker’s vocals down. I’m not sure if he plays the trumpet parts, but they are mournful and sad.

So, both movies demonstrate how rough life can be for a famous trumpeter. The music, and all the fame and money that comes with it, are apparently not enough.

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