Miles Davis vs Chet Baker: ‘Miles Ahead’ and ‘Born To Be Blue’ at the Sydney Film Festival

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As both of these films are showing simultaneously in Sydney – Miles Ahead on general release, Born to Be Blue at the Sydney Film Festival – and both are low budget films about legendary jazz trumpeters, it might be instructive to make comparisons. Miles Ahead, taking its title from the 1957 album Miles made with Bill Evans, in which Don Cheadle debuts as a director and also plays Miles Davis, is the result of a long gestation in which Cheadle, a sax player, taught himself to play the trumpet, while Born to Be Blue, from the 1965 Mel Torme song sung by Chet Baker, is produced, written and directed by Canadian Robert Budreau, with Hollywood actor Ethan Hawke in the title role and a jazz score by Toronto pianist and composer David Braid and trumpet by Kevin Turcotte, and was shot in Sudbury, Ontario.

Miles appears in Born to Be Blue, which is set mostly during Baker’s preparations for his ‘comeback’ after having his teeth knocked out by drug dealers and losing his embouchure, as a rival and a New York gatekeeper who tells Baker to ‘go back to the beach’ and says his music is ‘sweet, like candy’. Baker, appearing at his comeback at Birdland, a gig organised for him by Dizzy Gillespie, says to himself, ‘Hello, Dizzy, hello, Miles. There’s a little white cat on the West Coast gonna eat you up’. The films not only overlap historically – they both take stylistic and factual liberties with the biographies of their subjects, with mixed results. Cheadle not only had to contend with the overview of the Davis family, who strangely approved of his gangster caper idea – the film was originally going to be called Kill the Trumpet Player – but also a studio which insisted myopically on his having a white actor in a key role to cater for non-US markets, and the result is faintly ludicrous: Ewan McGregor plays Dave Braden, an obviously fictional cockney would-be Rolling Stone journalist born in Scotland who inveigles his way into Davis’ New York apartment and his life in a quest for a ‘comeback’ tape Miles has made, which involves a ridiculous gangster car chase caper colliding with an executive from Columbia Records and an up and coming trumpeter known only as Junior, who is a doppleganger of a younger Miles. The tape turns out to be of Miles noodling away on organ, as like Baker, he has lost his chops on trumpet, and is in his reclusive drug-addicted limbo of the mid-to-late 1970s. (I was reminded of an episode of Absolutely Fabulous, in which Edina stuffs up a rare tape of lost Beatles recordings by singing over the top of it). Both films jump about freely in time, and both have outstanding support performances: Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances Taylor, Miles’ much-abused wife, whom he forced to give up her career as a dancer, and who appears on the cover of his record Some Day My Prince Will Come, and Carmen Ejogo as Jane / Elaine, a compendium of the numerous women Baker had throughout his life, who is also cast as Baker’s wife in a film-within-a-film based on a proposed Italian biopic produced by Dino de Laurentiis in which Baker was hired to play himself while in prison.

Nothing came of the De Laurentiis project, and little further use is made of it as a framework in Born to Be Blue. (In his brief ‘lost’ memoir, As Though I Had Wings, which is mostly a chronicle of gigs, women, scoring, drug busts, and spells in prison, Baker describes being cast as ‘Chet the American’ in a 1960 rock and roll ‘musicarello’ Italian film Ulatori alla sbarra (Howlers at the Dock), in which he ‘portrayed a constantly nodding-out dude who occasionally wakes up and sings a song – when he’s not putting around Rome on a Vespa’. The film starred prominent Italian singers Mina and Adriano Celentano and was directed by Lucio Fulci, later famous for gory giallo such as Don’t Torture a Duckling and L’aldilà (The Beyond). An early scene shows Baker lying fully-clothed in the bath with his trumpet, answering the phone, which is the shower fitting. It’s now something of a minor cult classic.

Baker also contributed to a number of soundtracks of Italian films, and his sojourn in Italy would surely make a fascinating film in its own right. There is a 1992 book by Paola Boncompagni and Aldo Lastella, Chet Baker in Italy, which chronicles the trumpeter’s adventures in Italy between 1960 and 1963, mostly a collection of interviews with Baker’s Italian friends and colleagues, along with newspaper articles about his arrest, trial, imprisonment, and eventual release. Baker spoke fluent Italian, and was the subject of a profile by prominent Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in Europeo magazine called ‘Dove andrai Bakerre? (Where will Baker go?).

Cheadle manages to really look the part in Miles Ahead as well as play trumpet convincingly as Davis, even if his portrayal of the reclusive star in his dressing gown in the mid 1970s verges on caricature. But especially in the sequences set in the 1950s, he cuts a convincing figure. But as the film segues between different periods in a modal kind of way, we’re left with the power of the music, which a final musical sequence presents, featuring Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, in which Esperanza Spalding on bass looks like the only person who’s enjoying herself. Cheadle doesn’t stint on Miles’ appalling treatment of women – which Greg Tate famously commented on in an obituary, and Budreau sets up a denouement in which Baker has to choose between heroin and his life with Elaine in the lead-up to his Birdland comeback gig – and as we well know, it’s no contest. Hawke makes a reasonable fist of Baker’s singing on a couple of songs, and generally gives a convincing portrayal in what is a more conventional but also more successful biopic. As most Australians under 30 would probably know more about the egregious hipster imposter Chet Faker than the real person, Born to Be Blue is a welcome reminder of the subtle, muted power of a man who was called the James Dean of jazz. Miles Ahead, in contrast, verges on a comic strip caper with strong musical interludes.

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About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.

  • Marg W.

    I hate it when biography’s have more fiction than fact! Why can’t they tell the truth?