The notion of the zeitgeist has fallen into disrepute as too metaphysical, too German. No longer does the spirit of the time manifest itself in art and culture; instead, things trend, manipulated in shape and direction by advertising, public relations, backlinks, focus groups.
Yet one can still on uncanny occasions sense a wispy strand of the ethereal spirit slipping from its shackles, as when a stay-at-home dad calls out after his son Noah (the most popular American name in this age of climate angst and rising seas) and half the boys on the playground turn their heads towards him.
All this is to say, I’m less inclined to see the simultaneous appearance of two separate movies about jazz trumpeters, Miles Davis and Chet Bakers, as a product of statistical calculation by the entertainment industry. This unlikely pair of independent entertainments isn’t born of the same impulse that continually convinces Hollywood to let loose a stampede of Westerns or muster a legion of movies about ancient Rome. Rather, Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead (reviewed in this space two weeks ago) and Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue might well respond to a nostalgic desire among cineastes and music lovers for a time when jazz was still popular, when complex, technically demanding modes of musical expression could be artistic and economically viable, and offer up resistance to capitalist conformity and forms of oppression like racism. Does the zeitgeist yearn for a bygone age when a 12-inch vinyl LP could change the world—and if not the world, then at least the amorous course of an evening?
The likeness between the two movies—one black, the other white—goes deeper then the type of music and the shared instrument. Both films treat biographical source material as so many licks and riffs, which, like the building blocks of a jazz improvisation, can be recombined and reconsidered in the hopes of creating a convincing drama. Both fictions are too honest to pretend to be fact.
The subjects of the films were born within three years of each other into musically interesting times: Davis in 1926, Baker in 1929. Each burst onto the scene at or near the birth of bebop. Both musicians played with that oracle of the new music, Charlie Parker—Davis in New York, Baker in Los Angeles.
But both trumpeters were born at the wrong time when it came to the plague of heroin. Davis got arrested for possession on Baker’s turf in LA in 1953. The year before that Baker had played with Parker in LA and probably shot up for the first time in emulation of his musical idol, though Born to Be Blue stages this fateful encounter with the drug in Birdland in New York where Davis and Baker shared a two-week run in 1954.
The following year Davis had subdued his heroin addiction, while Baker could never beat dope, abusing not only the drug but many of the real women who unluckily came under the spell of his increasingly emaciated aura.
Both musicians were known—indeed, remain so—for the immediately recognizable sound of their trumpet playing and of their voices; Davis in speaking, Baker in the breathy languor of his singing. Each movie succeeds in projecting its main character’s personality as much through sonic texturing as through the moving image.
But there are crucial differences between the films, and these extend beyond the color of the heroes’ (or do I mean antiheroes’?) skin and the sumptuousness of their hair—Cheadle in late-seventies model Davis’ jheri curls, Hawke topped by a cresting pompadour as well-formed as the California waves he marvels at and occasionally wades into. Rather obviously contrasting the endless Pacific with the urban perils of New York, Born to Blue has Baker living on the Malibu bluffs in an immaculate, perfectly polished 1960s VW Westfalia with his luscious would-be actress, a conflation of some of the many women in and out of Baker’s life. Her fictionalized name is Jane Azuka, played by Carmen Ejobo with a gameness that occasionally lapses into self-consciousness, itself a trait that is perhaps an inevitable byproduct of the film’s stiltedness.
Whereas Miles Ahead is full of direction, vitality, verve, even a thrilling hatred, Born to be Blue meanders and muses. It lacks the meanness and desperation that emanated from the real Baker so distorted by drugs. The cameo Miles of Born to Be Blue has stern words for Baker and tosses him a final grudging approval, but one yearns for Cheadle to bust onto the screen from his own movie and jolt the zombie picture to vivid life, grabbing Baker’s horn and showing him, for example, all the biting cool that can be pulled from My Funny Valentine frozen on the West Coaster’s frigid lips.
While the narrative strategies of the two films show many similarities, sometimes drifting, sometimes darting into the past, Born to Be Blue is more contrived in its chronological games. It begins in a real, but never completed film about Baker’s life in which the trumpeter starred: the film-within-the-film finds him in desperate straits at the end of his stint in an Italian jail for drug charges. (For more on this and other crucial chapters in the trumpeter’s life, see the second installment of Jeffrey St. Clair’s two-part CounterPunch essay of 2011 ) This framing device allows us to see Ethan Hawke playing Baker in turn playing himself. Hawke is impressive in his portrayal of Baker’s neediness for music and human affection, this actorly success confirmed by the fact that, however tragic the trumpeter’s demise, after 100 minutes we’ve had enough of being around this Baker.
Born to be Blue isn’t 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould (whom Hawke actually resembles more than he does Baker), but rather biography as a 32-bar form to be riffed on with the freedom and imagination that only constraints can engender.
Yet compiling and rearranging the licks, harmonies, and dissonances of a life as if they were musical motives can also lead to predictable, by-the-book solos, stale improvisations that lack verve and the charge of the unexpected. Along these contradictory lines, Born to Be Blue is an unwittingly accurate, and weirdly persuasive take on Baker’s life and music. The film is wracked by cliché, while also conveying something true about the distracted despondence and narcotic haze that marked Baker’s declining artistic production after his best work of the early 1950s. In its cloying slackness the movie reminded me of Baker’s nearly unendurable ballad album Embraceable You recorded in 1957 but so dire that it wasn’t released until 1995.
The biggest of the clichés of Born to Blue is its staging of the mortal battle between the heroin and human love, between the monkey woman on Baker’s back and the (composite) woman in his life. Budreau’s hackneyed treatment of this struggle yields a weak film but also one that paradoxically provides a platform for an impressive stretch of acting about an overrated musician who, for all his talents and deficiencies, can still blow a few choruses with the zeitgeist.