Review: Jazz greats in films in ‘Miles,’ ‘Nina,’ ‘Blue’
New biopics about Miles Davis, Nina Simone and Chet Baker simultaneously land in theaters, to varying degrees of success
Jazz greats Miles Davis, Nina Simone and Chet Baker come back to life on the big screen this weekend in three wildly different projects that illustrate varying approaches to their subjects.
The Miles Davis film “Miles Ahead” is the most out-there of the bunch, approaching Davis’ life as an improvised jazz solo. Writer-director-star Don Cheadle gives a towering performance that the film simply can’t keep up with; he’s truly on his own, which is perhaps the way Davis would have wanted it.
The film takes place in Davis’ reclusive later years, when his productivity slowed to a halt and his eccentricities took over. Cheadle plays Davis as a volatile chain-smoking gangster who barks, “get the (expletive) off me, Hitler!” in a threateningly raspy whisper when approached by a fan.
Too bad, then, that the film plunks him into a silly caper involving a journalist from Rolling Stone (a badly miscast Ewan McGregor), some stolen master tapes and some shady music biz execs.
Cheadle takes liberties with time, space and reality, most effectively in a showdown at a boxing match where a jazz band is playing inside the ring. But sometimes he goes too far; the film’s climax laughably envisions Davis embracing a world where he’d have “#SocialMusic” spelled out on his vest.
If “Miles Ahead” is untethered by reality, the Nina Simone biopic “Nina” is too chained to it. Writer-director Cynthia Mort focuses on Simone’s late-career relationship with her nurse-turned-manager, and isn’t able to branch out and grasp the story of Simone’s art or her impact.
As Simone, Zoe Saldana is too overwhelmed by the specter of the singer to truly inhabit the role. We get glimpses of her lashing out — in one scene, she knifes a fan who wasn’t paying attention while she performed — but the quiet moments in between the fits of rage don’t ring true.
David Oyelowo plays Clifton Henderson, who goes from taking care of Simone’s health to taking care of her career, and their relationship unfolds with rom-com implausibility. She’s at his throat, then they’re on the same team, then they’re fighting again — the only thing missing from the sitcom-like set-up is a third party secretly offering him money to not walk away.
Some of the concert performances sparkle, but the depictions of the behind-the-scenes business dealings come off uninformed. Simone has been the subject of several recent documentaries, and any of them offer a better glimpse of the singer.
The best of the weekend’s three musician-driven movies is “Born to Be Blue,” writer-director Robert Budreau’s intimate take on West Coast jazz great Chet Baker.
Ethan Hawke burrows into his character and plays the jazz trumpeter as a wounded, self-destructive junkie who’s too haunted by his own demons to ever overcome them.
Baker doesn’t cast nearly as long a shadow as Davis or Simone, which works to Budreau’s advantage, as he can focus on the man, rather than the myth. The film deals with Baker as he attempts to pick himself up from the throes of heroin addiction and start a life with his actress girlfriend, Jane (Carmen Ejogo), an amalgam of several women from Baker’s life.
Hawke is heartbreaking in the role; he packs a lifetime of pain and insecurity into a performance of “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” And Ejogo (“Selma”) does sturdy work as his rock; a scene where she wipes dried blood off his face after he passes out shooting heroin has a touching sweetness to it that feels all too real.
Budreau, who stages several breathtaking scenes of Baker playing against the vast open sky during a visit to his parents’ farm in Oklahoma, successfully gets to the root of his subject.
Biopics about musicians are not easy to pull off, but when they work it makes the song that much sweeter.
Rated R for strong language throughout, drug use, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence
Running time: 100 minutes
Running time: 90 minutes
‘Born to Be Blue’
Rated R for drug use, language, some sexuality and brief violence
Running time: 98 minutes