At the Movies

Michael Wood

The places were Philadelphia and New York, the names were John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bill Evans and a few others, heirs to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, spoken of with awe in every version of the story. Something called West Coast jazz, thought by many to be an oxymoron, was making itself heard in the persons of Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Shelly Manne and Dave Brubeck. Davis made the albums Birth of the Cool in 1957 and Kind of Blue in 1959.

A few years earlier, in 1953, Baker had won the DownBeat magazine award for Best Trumpet of the Year, and Davis had this to say about it in his autobiography: ‘I think he knew he didn’t deserve it over Dizzy and a lot of other trumpet players. I didn’t hold it against him personally, although I was mad at the people who picked him.’ In Robert Budreau’s film Born to be Blue, Baker plays at about this time to an audience that includes Davis and Gillespie. Gillespie is friendly, Davis is patronising. The playing was sweet, he says, ‘like candy’. He advises Baker to come back when he has ‘lived a little’. Baker takes this to mean shooting up more heroin than he already is, and wandering into trouble whenever he can. ‘Trouble’s good for you’ is one of his more memorable lines in the movie. He gets beaten up when he fails to pay a drug debt, loses his teeth, has to learn to play again – there’s an excruciating scene where he is sitting in a bathtub, bleeding profusely as he tries to form what used to be his embouchure. He gives up the heroin, finds a nice girlfriend, marries her and expects her to find her life’s meaning in her devotion to him (Davis does the same in Miles Ahead, another new jazz movie). Then Baker plays for Davis and Gillespie again, this time in Birdland in New York. He performs brilliantly, at least that’s what the story if not the sound intimates, but he can’t do it without drugs. End of marriage, end of movie. Baker drifts off back into his real-life counterpart’s biography, leaving America to die years later in Amsterdam.

The movie has some good moments, notably Ethan Hawke’s creditable imitation of Baker’s version of ‘My Funny Valentine’, and generally his display of the character’s mix of bewilderment and anxiety. Carmen Ejogo as his wife projects loyalty without submission, no small feat. The scene with Baker’s parents in rural Oklahoma is amazing, like a talking photograph borrowed from Dorothea Lange. The mother is austere, the father downright mean. When the son boasts of his all-American success compared with the father’s meagre achievements as a local banjo player, the father says: ‘At least I didn’t ever disgrace the name of the family.’

But there is too much beautiful photography, too many California beaches and snowy Western fields, as if jazz were a matter of communing with nature or hoping for a mention in National Geographic. And for reasons of copyright, I take it, we don’t hear any of Baker’s own playing or singing in the film. It was a little hard to tell from the sounds of the trumpet whether he was supposed to be still faltering or had finally returned to form, and a gifted amateur singer is not the same as a singer who pretends to be an amateur. Hawke certainly creates the effect of a Baker performance very well, but the recordings themselves, listened to again, are altogether more sinuous and sly, weirdly suggesting an innocence the singer himself doesn’t believe in. Hawke, we might say, is the helpless goofy addict full of charm; Baker was the pretty boy lost who turned slowly into a skeleton.

Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead, with Cheadle himself playing Davis, is a much better film, because it has a more complex idea of its central character, but it does waste a lot of time with flaccid movie material: an over-played gangster and his hit man, much pistol waving on the part of Davis, and a ludicrous car chase. And it does tell essentially the same tale, prompting a question about time and success in jazz stories, and perhaps in celebrity stories more generally. Why can’t we see early success as anything other than a burden? In Born to be Blue, Baker makes a comeback, and then has to make a comeback from that, but where is the youngster who made this story possible? Similarly, Miles Ahead picks up its hero in the 1970s when Davis is famous but not making music – ‘from 1975 until early 1980 I didn’t pick up my horn,’ Davis says in his autobiography. A Rolling Stone reporter (played by Ewan McGregor) wants to write his story, and Davis reluctantly agrees. They hang out and have adventures for the rest of the film, though fortunately we, if not they, are distracted by many flashbacks, some of them to several different periods of Davis’s life at once. Collecting some cocaine from a dealer, Davis sees a row of his old albums on a shelf, including Sketches of Spain and Some Day My Prince Will Come. He looks angry, as if his old fame belonged to someone else, a case of mistaken identity. He finds a new musical persona by the end of the movie: the once cool city cat of the early work becomes the brooding hippie of the later albums and rock concerts, a sort of garishly dressed rolling stone. I found the end of the film persuasive, in part because I like Davis’s late style and in part because the idea of his needing to change in order to remain himself is thoughtfully worked out. But the film’s choosing not to relate the first years except as the object of a difficult, denied nostalgia does seem to be part of a myth of success: only the broken years count, along with the final redemption.

Cheadle looks angrier and more disturbed than Davis does in photographs and film clips, but probably he is only externalising what was really there. If anything, Davis may have been angrier than Cheadle makes him. He limped from a degenerative hip condition, taking all kinds of painkillers, lots of cocaine, and drinking heavily – ‘Heinekens and cognac’, as he says. But then he has his memories, and in this film we have the music. He takes Some Day My Prince Will Come home with him from the dealer’s because the face on the cover is that of Frances Taylor, his ex-wife – ‘the best wife I ever had’, he says for himself and the movie says for him in its images. Frances is wonderfully played by Emayatzy Corinealdi. She talks about dancing as if it was a form of thinking, just as Davis seems to play his thoughts as if they were music. She stays with him as long as she can, gives up her stage career for him, but finally can’t put up with the drugs and the other women who are always returning.

Her image remains central to the movie, slipping into moment after moment as an emblem of everything Davis thinks he has lost – including his music. They have a terrific row at one point, and beat each other up. Later he is notionally forgiven when he buys her an expensive necklace and lots of other presents, but he and she both know it’s over. At the moment of the row, though, he picks himself up, and returns to a recording session downstairs. They are playing ‘Nefertiti’, the title track from a 1968 album, and Davis has never sounded better. Part of his regret in the present time of the story is for this musical resilience as well as for the ruined relationship.

He doesn’t want to go back, though. He says he hates being told he should play like he used to. ‘It takes a long time to be able to play like yourself.’ And: ‘Music that don’t move on is just dead.’ It’s a good line, and even I don’t want anyone’s early years to turn into a brilliant tomb. Still, the great scene in the film is a mixture of memory and fantasy. The memory is of a club where Frances has come to hear Miles and his group. She sits near the back of the room. They are performing ‘Blue in Green’, a classic number from Kind of Blue. Bill Evans is playing the piano with what Davis later called his ‘quiet fire’. Davis’s trumpet is muted and cries out with the longing that haunts all his music, the yearning for what can’t be said and can’t be had. Smoke drifts across the room, and suddenly the band and the public have vanished. Only Davis and Frances are left in the frame, though the music continues as if the band was still there. Then the band comes back, the room is full, the world is what it was. There is something to be said for playing like you used to.