Looking merely at the quality between the two jazz trumpeter biopics released to theaters in the last month, Miles Davis is truly Miles Ahead. Between Don Cheadle’s directorial debut and Robert Budreau’s Ethan Hawke-as-Chet Baker Born to be Blue, one has panache, vitality, and originality while the other plods through familiar beats. Direct comparison may be an unfair but inevitable consequence of release proximity and subject material (the most recent example that springs to mind is 2013’s pair of White House disaster movies, White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen), but both give fair representations of their musician’s symphonic styles – and their particular drugs of choice.
Mötley Crüe were no trendsetters and Bob Dylan passing The Beatles a hotel doobie seems downright innocuous compared to the jazz world. Miles Davis, a famous cocaine addict, and Chet Baker, a well-publicized heroin junkie, subdued their musical anxieties with widespread substance abuse.
The difference between these demons, Davis on his uppers and Baker sinking into his downers, becomes stylized in the two films.
Cheadle’s heavy (but not unflattering) directorial hand yanks Miles Ahead by the collar, creating loud, garish montages and car chases in warm hues of red and sepia. Often angry and gun-wavingly violent, the only times we leave the intense present (that plays like a crime thriller) are with flashbacks that aren’t hazy heroin dreams, but erratic coke jolts stabbing into the narrative.
Then we hear Davis popping on the soundtrack: strident squeals, quick trills, and explosive articulation.
Born To Be Blue falls more into the played out biopic rut that Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story sublimely mocked. It meanders softly and sadly with the brokenhearted schoolboy-charm that mewls in Baker’s music. With cheekbones that wouldn’t look out of place on Yves Saint Laurent’s heroin-chic runway, Hawke as Baker navigates the light grays and blues of his world modestly, quietly, non-threateningly, trying to get back to where he was before his drug debts cost him his front teeth.
The path to former glory plays pitiably, like a kicked dog inching back towards its assailant, as both the music and the smack inevitably re-seduce Baker. Sadly, aside from Hawke’s excellent timidity, from his sly, delicate voice to his slumped posture, the film turns an addict’s struggle to kick the habit into a sepia weepy – not as nihilistic as Requiem for a Dream, but perhaps in a way fitting, as the somber tones of Baker’s smoky, sexy slow jams mist from his trumpet.
In Miles Ahead, Davis – taking the term “comeback” as a personal insult – demands innovation of himself rather than simple regression. During the weak ending of the film’s narrative (it culminates with a concert punctuated by primary colored flashbangs), he must do both. The in-between forces us to intermingle the professional and creative struggles of a musician with the battles of a junkie, and in this finds success.
It’s not about the drugs or reclaiming glory, it’s about avoiding being tied to his legacy. He’s an artist prematurely retired by his own success. The plot centers around Davis and a Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor) as they seek to retrieve a stolen session tape for a new album. Systems of ownership, musical authorship, and artistic merit bubble beneath angry allegories of bodily control. Miles Davis wants to be his own person and do to his person what he wants. And the film focuses on his body as a close second to the music. From his distinctive scrunched embouchure to his boxer’s physique to his wounded limp, his body is on full display – including sensual scenes with his wife, Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi, impeccably powerful). Raw, vibrant, and increasingly dangerous sexiness builds through Don Cheadle’s talent as an actor and a director.
Though some of these relationship flashbacks run long and include abrupt tonal jumps, Cheadle runs the show. His smoker’s rasp irritating the eardrums, grating again and again so that even his simplest requests feel like gunpoint demands. With a haughty backwards lean, he struts like a king and his wardrobe back him up. Reds and golds adorn the Prince of Darkness, his satin shirts and belted robes as regal as the ‘70s Upper West Side would allow.
Though these hot and cold films are sure to be as divisive as the coastal jazz schism, their stars, if nothing else, do service to their subjects. While Born To Be Blue may not win any awards for originality, it captures a certain wan poignancy that surrounds Baker’s memory. Don Cheadle, both behind the camera and in front of it, drives Miles Ahead as it shout, rages, and threatens: notice me! And without a doubt, you should.