Movies: A trumpet player’s take on two new brassy biopics
Searching for a proper trumpet movie proves problematic when Hollywood insists on blowing all the false notes in a bid to cook up drama and romantic heroes
by Charles Gordon
Trumpet players hardly every get to have movies made about them — unlike, say, ninjas. As luck would have it, there are two big ones out at the same time, Born to Be Blue, a fictionalized version of Chet Baker’s life, and Miles Ahead, a drama about Miles Davis.
As a trumpet player, woefully amateur but serious about it, I have to say that the real star of Born to Be Blue is not Ethan Hawke, the Hollywood star, who plays Chet, but Kevin Turcotte, the Toronto trumpet player, who plays the music of Chet on the soundtrack. More on that later.
In the jokes that are made about musicians (drummers who slow down, guitarists who play out of tune, unemployable trombonists) the stereotype of the trumpet players is the arrogant show-off. The trumpet can be played loud and high and often is the lead instrument in the band. Further, until Charlie Parker and John Coltrane came along, the trumpet players were the dominant innovators in jazz, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie primary among them.
Interestingly, neither Chet nor Miles fit the stereotype. Davis had the arrogance but he had neither the power nor the range of his contemporary, Gillespie. He was quieter, moodier, more melodic. Baker was even more so. And Baker was strongly influenced in his playing by the Davis of the ’40s and early ’50s, which makes the confluence of the two movies all the more intriguing.
Miles, in fact, makes a couple of appearances in the Chet movie. In a movie-within-a-movie sequence, he glowers at Chet, who is playing at Birdland in New York, probably in 1954, and tells him that he is not ready for New York. This may or may not have happened. Baker did play Birdland at the height of his fame playing a softer-edged California version of modern jazz. Certainly there is an emotional truth to it. For all his pretty-boy image, Baker was serious about wanting to play the trumpet better and would have looked up to players like Miles, Dizzy and Clifford Brown. He would want to have been respected in New York. He would probably also have felt guilty about winning jazz magazine polls over New York trumpeters who, while less famous, were more skillful.
Emotional truth is one way of looking at a movie. Born to be Blue works on that level. It is true that Baker loved to play the trumpet. It is true that he was a junkie. It is true that women loved him and that he mistreated them (although, by most accounts, he treated them far worse than the Chet portrayed by Ethan Hawke does in the movie).
And Miles Ahead has emotional truth going for it too. Although Don Cheadle, who directed, co-wrote and starred in the movie, acknowledges that his film veers far from biography, his Miles has believability — a lonely, bitter, tormented and exploited man who doesn’t want to live on past glories. He is surrounded by wannabe-hip white people, some of whom are trying to get rich off him.
Is it too much to ask for historical truth as well? The film-makers have focused in on a particular period in Chet’s life, one of the few times when he was not being a junkie. It is the late ’60s. He is no longer topping the polls. He is in jail in Italy, suffering from withdrawal, waking up to see a big spider crawling out of the bell of his horn, which is awfully convenient. (In Miles Ahead, a cockroach pays a similar visit.) Chet comes back to California to make a film about himself and becomes involved with an actress who tries to save him. She is a composite. Some thugs beat him up and knock all his teeth out, probably because he owed money to a dealer. The thugs did exist.
There follows a period that is more in the comfort zone of people who make movies about artists — the idyllic part. Chet and Jane spend time alone together, they frolic on the beach, they make love, they visit his parents in Oklahoma, he gets off the junk (well, more properly, onto methadone). During this period a significant number of Canadian actors appear, by the way. The movie was filmed partly in Sudbury and people like Janet Laine Green, Callum Keith Rennie, Eugene Clark and Stephen McHattie are in it.
Chet learns to play trumpet with his new teeth. He gradually works his way back into the good graces of his old record producer, Dick Bock, gives an odd concert at which he impresses some men in suits, and persuades Dizzy Gillespie, who just happens to be there, to get him booked into Birdland.
Did this really happen? I can’t find any evidence of it, but it is certainly convenient to the story, in which Chet, nervous beyond belief, struggles with temptation before going on stage. He knows Miles and Dizzy are in the audience. Jane, despite his pleadings isn’t there to comfort him. She has a chance at a role in Hollywood. Also, Chet is, conveniently, out of methadone and, conveniently, has heroin. At the last minute Jane arrives at the club, as does the methadone. Which door does Chet choose?
If we know his life, we know the answer. The film-makers tell us, in words projected onto the screen before the closing credits, that Chet moved to Europe, stayed a heroin addict and died in 1989.
Interestingly, the same theme is played out in Miles ahead. Frances Taylor, Miles’s wife, is in London, performing as a dancer and Miles, who is in New York, pleads with her to come back. She does and it doesn’t work out well. Anyway, the point is made. Trumpet players are needy and don’t like their wives to have careers.
…Trumpet players are needy and don’t like their wives to have careers.
If, as some have said, the film-makers have told their story well, the question needs to be asked whether they have told the best story. I would argue that a fascinating movie could have been made about Baker’s golden days, in the early ’50s, when he became a star playing in Gerry Mulligan’s quartet, emerged as a fine singer, was written about in Time magazine, was recruited to play with Charlie Parker and was part of an exciting West Coast jazz scene. That would have been fun to watch and perhaps we could have ended it ominously with his first encounter with heroin.
Alternatively, we would have begun the movie with Baker’s return to Europe, the only place he was employable, his life as an itinerant musician, working with anyone who would play with him, madly searching for doctors who would give him prescriptions, recording some truly dreadful music and, somehow, some brilliant music as well, improving as an artist at the same time as he was becoming a wreck as a human being. And finally, falling, jumping or being pushed out of a hotel window in Amsterdam and being found dead in an alley. That’s a movie.
Miles Davis, too, had many movies in him — (1) his emergence as a successor to Dizzy Gillespie in Charlie Parker’s band, his decline into drug addiction, going cold turkey to beat the habit, locked in a room in his father’s home, and his resurrection as the leader of the great quintet with John Coltrane; (2) the sad love story of his pursuit of the French actress Juliette Greco, told so vividly in Robert Lepage’s play Needles and Opium; or later, (3) the several musical reinventions that led, first to “Kind of Blue” and then to “Bitches Brew.”
Instead, the film-makers have chosen to give us familiar stories: in Chet’s case it’s the woman with a heart of gold trying to save the tormented artist from himself. Trumpet movie aficionados know this one. It’s Young Man With a Horn (1950), in which Doris Day drives to save Kirk Douglas from booze and Lauren Bacall. Douglas’s character, Rick Martin, is based on Bix Beiderbecke, an innovative trumpet player of the ’20s who drank himself to death at a young age (and whose understated style is sometimes cited as an influence on Chet Baker). Harry James does the actual trumpet work, in a style that is anachronistically too modern for the period portrayed. But it sounds terrific.
Doris saves Kirk, but not before he has smashed his horn in disgust after missing a high note at a recording session. It is refreshingly different that Jane does not save Chet, but it’s still the same story. The truth would have been more interesting than the fiction.
In Miles Davis’s case it’s a caper movie, with Miles and a journalist trying to recapture a stolen audiotape containing the new music Miles has been working on while in his five-year period as a drug addled (again) musical recluse. That five-year hiatus did indeed happen, dramatic in itself, but the movie adds guns and car chases to it. This was a man whose real life was the stuff of drama. Why did we need that?
This was a man whose real life was the stuff of drama. Why did we need that?
Finally, what of musical truth? The Miles movie gets it, to be sure. For one thing, much of the soundtrack is actual Miles Davis recordings. Other music, composed by Robert Glasper is true to the man. We get real-looking glimpses of important musical events in his life, such as a recording session with Gil Evans, the Coltrane quintet on stage and a later quintet with Wayne Shorter rehearsing. There is a wonderful, almost Bollywoodish, final sequence where a band plays the music Miles was presumably working on. Actual Davis sidemen, such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter are in the band and the the young trumpeter Keyon Harrold has the right feel.
Further, Don Cheadle is totally believable as a trumpet player. He breathes in the right spots, even fingers correctly, in the places where you can see his fingers.
As for the Born to Be Blue music, it gets complicated. The movie soundtrack, composed by David Braid, also of Toronto, is true to the period and Kevin Turcotte’s rendition of Baker’s playing is lovely. It’s not an imitation — you can still recognize it as Kevin Turcotte if you know his playing. But it captures Baker’s spirit. Ethan Hawke’s version of Chet’s singing gets the wispy feeling of his voice, but not the musicality.
For the musically aware, there are anomalies. Why is a Charlie Mingus tune heard repeatedly on the soundtrack when Mingus’s music was about as far from Baker’s California scene as you could get? And would Chet, when he finally gets his big chance to return to Birdland, in front of Miles and Dizzy, really open his set by singing a ballad?
And then there’s the kind of stuff that drives musicians crazy, just as doctors must be driven crazy by seeing doctors on screen, and just as my cousin, a former teacher, hated To Sir With Love. In one of the Birdland scenes, Chet comes on, plays the opening chorus of Let’s Get Lost, solos on half the tune and ends it, to great applause, in about a minute and a half. In real life, he improvises three times through the tune, then the piano player, the bass player and the drummer solo and then he takes it out, maybe seven or 10 minutes later. In serious dramatic treatments of music, such as in the HBO series Treme, they let the song play right out. In others, they let the music drop into the background for awhile and then return to it at the end. They don’t present an abbreviated version as a full performance.
It would be so easy to get this right. Just ask a musician. Similarly, while Ethan Hawke looks like Chet, stands like Chet, holds the horn like Chet and breathes in the right places while “playing,” he does things that a trumpet player would never do, such as chasing a woman around a beach with the horn to his lips. You wouldn’t need thugs to break your teeth if you did that.
And as for playing the trumpet lying on your back, try it some time. The saliva runs back into your mouth.
Still, this would not be the most unrealistic screen portrayal of a trumpet player. I would give that to Fred Astaire, who played a trumpet player trying to make Artie Shaw’s band in Second Chorus (1940). Astaire held the horn at an extreme uptilted angle which looked jaunty but would have made it absolutely impossible to get a sound out of the horn (although he sounded good, as dubbed by Bobby Hackett). By contrast, Denzel Washington, as a trumpet player in Mo’ Better Blues (1990) was utterly convincing looking (and sounded great, as played by Terence Blanchard). His only difficulty was showing up at a big-time New York jazz club woefully out of practice (he also got his teeth smashed by a thug) and deciding to sit in. Would a perfectionist, as he was portrayed, really subject himself to public humiliation like that?
And as for playing the trumpet lying on your back, try it some time. The saliva runs back into your mouth.
The best-ever portrayal of a jazz musician was by a saxophonist, Dexter Gordon in ’Round Midnight (1986), a film based loosely on the life of the pianist Bud Powell, with a touch of Lester Young thrown in. The music in that film was played live and Gordon’s acting was so natural that a friend of mine remarked “I wonder if Dexter knew he was in a movie.”
It’s not an original thought that it is difficult to convey art in a movie. Creativity is something that happens in the mind or, if you prefer, in the soul. Either way it is not something visual. Film-makers have tried various ways to express it and it rarely works.
But it can. There is a scene near the end of Miles Ahead that I thought completely gets the essence of the music and the creativity that goes into it. Miles and the journalist have recovered the missing reel-to-reel tape, surviving the car chase and the gunshots. With them is a young trumpet player who aspires to be Miles (even to taking heroin). They play the tape. There is no trumpet on it, just what sounds like some noodling on a keyboard. It’s Miles, working out stuff.
The journalist is furious. There goes his big story. He’s been insulted, abused by Miles, beaten up — and for this? The kid trumpet player, though, hears something. He picks up a trumpet and improvises over the tape.
Miles looks up after the trumpeter plays a particular passage. “That’s not in there,” he rasps.
“Yes it is,” the youngster says, and moves to a piano, where he plays some chords, demonstrating how what he was playing fits in. Miles sits beside him and begins making suggestions: the chord could be modified by inverting it and changing the bass note, and so on.
It’s completely believable, a rare cinematic insight into how jazz musicians think and relate. For that one moment, you can almost forgive the car chases.
THE EX-PRESS, April 26, 2016