September 26, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The idea of a PBS “American Masters” documentary on jazz great Miles Davis could be cause for concern. The series is known for its high-level and mostly favorable profiles of influential people. Would the series go “deep” enough?  Would it gloss over the dark side? Would it be able to capture the essence of an enigmatic man who changed the music world more than once? The final result is a documentary that acts as a terrific primer for those unfamiliar with Miles Davis, and one that should satisfy his most ardent fans as it chronicles each stage of the music. For this we can thank Stanley Nelson, a documentarian who has delivered several projects on the history of African-Americans.

By definition, the ‘cradle-to-grave’ approach limited to a 2 hour run time means certain aspects must be glossed over. We learn that Miles’ father was a dentist in East Saint Louis, allowing them to be the second wealthiest black family in the state. Of course, this did not shield them from racism and segregation, or even domestic violence within their home … a trait that Miles would carry throughout his own relationships later in life.  “Music comes before everything.” It’s a battle cry from the memoir, “Miles: The Autobiography”. The film features actor Carl Lumbly narrating many of Miles’ own words throughout the film – with Lumbly’s voice bearing a sufficient resemblance to Miles’ distinct sound.

Montages of photos are utilized, initially to kick off the film with shots of Miles performing on stage, and then to mark the specific social and political era as the timeline shifts (1944, 1955, 1969, etc). Interviews are conducted with East Saint Louis residents, Miles’ childhood friends, musicians – those he played with and those he influenced, writers, and historians. Each brings their own perspective to telling Miles’ story, and perhaps none is more insightful than former dancer Frances Taylor, who was married to him from 1968-78. This era and their marriage was a key element of the 2015 film MILES APART starring Don Cheadle. Ms. Taylor passed away in 2018, and her recollections hold much weight and insight into Miles off stage.

The advantage of a chronological recap of his career is that it allows for a clear grasp of just how often the music of Miles Davis evolved over the years. At age 17, he was playing with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and in 1955 at the Newport Jazz Festival he introduced a new style that shook the industry and landed him a lucrative recording contract. He took film score to a new place with Louis Malle’s ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS and later played with the great John Coltrane. Of course Miles’ seminal 1959 album “Kind of Blue” is discussed by many who note the impact it had on jazz and music in general. We hear from Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Carlos Santana as each tries to describe a sound that defies description.

As he himself proclaimed, Miles was all about the music; and because of this, it makes sense that the film focuses on his innovative approach. Director Nelson does not, however, ignore the dark side of the man. As far back as high school Miles was “a genius and weird”, but lifelong battles with drugs and alcohol, and his history of being a difficult and violent partner, put the personal side in stark contrast to the beauty of his music. His first two wives, Frances Taylor and singer Betty Mabry, both documented his violent temper, and it’s a little disappointing that his third wife, actress Cicely Tyson was not interviewed for the film. They were married from 1981-88. Ms. Tyson turns 95 years old this year, and is still a working actor. It was the younger Ms. Mabry that revamped Miles’ fashion and introduced him to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, helping usher in the jazz fusion era.

We do learn the story behind the recognizable raspy voice, and the film covers his time at Julliard, his first trip to Paris (where he met actress Juliette Greco), his collaboration with arranger Gil Evans, the influence of Clive Davis, and his performance with Quincy Jones not long before Miles died in 1991. It’s details like Miles Davis music provided the template for Hip-Hop that make the film click, but of course the real joy is derived from hearing his music from 5 decades of work. Someone in the movie states “I want to feel the way Miles sounds.” And we know exactly what she means.

watch the trailer:



April 6, 2016

born to be blue Greetings again from the darkness. Most biopics aim for historical accuracy with only the occasional stretching of facts for dramatic effect. Within the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen two that take a much different approach … fictionalized versions of jazz icons – legendary trumpeters Miles Davis (Miles Ahead) and Chet Baker. Writer/director Robert Budreau expands on his 2009 short film to deliver a feature length look at the talented and troubled Baker … with a huge assist from Ethan Hawke.

The film begins in 1966 with Baker locked up in an Italian jail cell. Bailed out by a filmmaker who wants Baker to star in his own life story, a flash back to 1954 allows us to see Baker at his musical peak. As he heads into a gig, he asks an autograph seeker “Who do you like best, me or Miles Davis?” The question could be arrogance when asked by another artist, but it’s our first insight into the insecurity that Baker struggled with his entire life. His desire to be liked sometimes conflicted with his goal to be great. But like the story of so many musical geniuses, it was the drug abuse that continually sabotaged the talent.

Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King in Selma) plays Jane, a fictionalized blend of Baker’s lovers through the years. The two of them are good together, though she is as much a caretaker as a lover … keeping him on track and nursing him through the (many) tough times. Baker received a savage beating that cost him his front teeth and ability to play the trumpet for years. The movie presents the beating as drug-related, but history is unclear on the matter. Still, it’s painful and brutal to watch Baker bleed for his art.

Baker is credited as the inspiration of West Coast Swing, though it’s quite challenging to relate to yet another junkie musician – no matter how talented. He’s just not a very interesting guy as presented here. Talented, yes … but not very interesting. Additionally, none of Baker’s music is actually heard. It’s been reimagined, just like his life story.

Despite the issues, Ethan Hawke delivers what may be the best work of his career. He is tremendous and believable as both the talented jazz artist and the insecure drug addict. Director Budreau creates a dream-like atmosphere at times, which adds to the “is it real” style. The 1988 Oscar nominated documentary Let’s Get Lost is probably a better source for Baker’s life story, but Budreau’s take does capture the man’s struggles.

watch the trailer:


ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (1958) revisited

October 4, 2015

Ascenseur pour l’echefaud (France)

elevator to gallows For an introduction to the French New Wave, the first feature film from director Louis Malle is a good place to start. The neo-realism in this crime drama (based on the novel from Noel Calef) was new to film goers at the time, and even more startling was the natural lighting and minimal make-up used to photograph lead actress Jeanne Moreau. Beyond that, the haunting score from the legendary Miles Davis has been best described as “the loneliest trumpet”.

The film jump starts with an emotional and desperate phone call between lovers shown in extreme close-up: Florence (Ms. Moreau) and Julien (Maurice Ronet). The two have plotted to kill her husband (his boss) – war profiteer Simon Carala (played by Jean Wall) – so that they can be together. The details of the perfect murder plan are carried out with the intention of making it appear like a suicide. Unfortunately for Julien, a frantic attempt to hide some evidence leaves him trapped in an elevator. The fallout from this bad break finds Florence believing he has deserted her, and creates a secondary story line involving the theft of his car by a couple of youngsters out for a good time.

It’s here that the film bounces between the three sequences and really capitalizes on Malle’s expertise with a camera. Julien’s frustration in trying to escape the elevator generates the necessary tension, while the exploits of the young couple Louis and Veronique (Georges Poujouly, Yori Bertin) find them in a bad-situation-gone-worse when their impromptu party with a German couple (Ivan Petrovich, Elga Andersen) turns tragic. It’s easy to see how Jean Luc Godard was influenced by this young couple for his classic Breathless (1960). But best of all is the wandering woman of despair … we follow Florence as she tries to track down Julien on the rainy late night city streets.  These shots of Ms. Moreau are truly spectacular thanks not just to the lighting, but also the realistic emotions of her facial expressions … we never doubt her feeling of resignation.

Mr. Malle was only 26 when he directed this film, and the follow-up (also with Ms. Moreau) entitled The Lovers, also released in 1958. He had worked as an underwater photographer for Jacques Costeau and referenced this in the film. Malle had a long time marriage to Candice Bergen, and an incredible career that featured three Academy Award nominations (including Atlantic City, 1980). This was Ms. Moreau’s breakthrough film and led to her best known role in Francois Truffaut’s 1962 film Jules and Jim. She is still working today at age 87.  She also had a successful singing career, as well as numerous love affairs (Malle, Truffaut, Pierre Cardin, and Miles Davis).

Although there are some details and plot points that might annoy those who pay close attention, it doesn’t take away from the groundbreaking work of a young director who helped change the tone of movies. It’s interesting to note that Florence and Julien don’t share a scene in this film, outside of the opening phone call split scene. Additionally, the contemporary influence lives on through the line “Never leave photos lying around” (or on social media).  A special thanks goes out to The Texas Theatre in Dallas for bringing this classic back to the big screen.

Rather than post a clip or trailer, below is a video showing a young Miles Davis playing along to the film: