Sunday, April 3, 2016

I Should Be Thrilled


New biopics of jazz trumpet legends Miles Davis and Chet Baker! Actually let's remove the exclamation point. I played trumpet and studied jazz well into my adulthood and have listened to Miles and Baker for at least four decades, so I should be thrilled, right? But, no. I watched the 90 second trailer for the Miles pic and during that brief time Miles punched four or five guys in the face. If you think the main thing to know about Miles is that he was badass gangsta, well, this should get you stoked. I know that this was a labor of love for Don Cheadle, but my heart sinks a bit thinking about it. The main thing to know about any artist is their art. Yes, Miles was quite a character and was indeed a badass.* But this is all secondary. As for Baker, I think he was actually pretty uninteresting personally. When he wasn't playing (often brilliantly) he was usually shooting smack.

The best way to get someone fired up about an artist is through a well done documentary. I eagerly watch every American Masters show on PBS. In good documentaries you get a real sense of why the art is/was interesting and noteworthy. And through various interviews and narration you can get a true sense of the person and how their experiences relate to their art. Case in point: the stellar Sinatra documentary on HBO directed by Alex Gibney, Sinatra: All or Nothing At All. I came away from that 4 hour show with an ever deeper love for his music and a gobsmacked appreciation for the epic sweep of his life. I felt the same way about the PBS American Experience documentary on Walt Disney, also released last year.

Fred Kaplan writing at Slate, has a great article on this topic. He knows his jazz, and like many or most jazz lovers he feels that Round Midnight is the best depiction of jazz on film. It starred the charismatic tenor giant Dexter Gordon, and featured all sorts of top jazz people playing versions of themselves. True, Gordon was past his prime as a player here, but you get a sense for how it is above all a love for the music that drives the artists. I liked the Johnny Cash biopic, but it didn't increase my appreciation for his music as much as various documentaries have.

Far and away the best depiction of music and musicians on screen, IMHO, was achieved in the HBO show Treme. For the most part the musicians played themselves, and all the music scenes were organic to the story and showed the love that is the foundation of successful art. Show creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer let the music speak for itself, and there was a respect in that choice that is rare.

* I do recommend the Miles autobiography. You get a true sense for the infamous Miles attitude, but you also get his often-generous assessments of the musicians who inspired him. I've read it twice.

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