In Triumph of Bacchus (1964), Bob Thompson borrowed compositional elements from Renaissance depictions of the Roman god of wine. He rejected descriptive clarity, however, substituting vividly-hued arrangement in which the figures’ identities are left open-ended. In reimagining these historical sources, Thompson painted in a manner akin to jazz musicians’ innovations, where improvisation was based on a thorough understanding of preexisting styles. Saxophonist Steve Lacy, a friend of Thompson’s, referred to the artist as “jazz himself,” explaining that “the way he painted was like jazz — taking liberties with colors.”
New York is an influential state and city, with millions of tourists flocking there year after year so that they can experience the Big Apple. This is because New York is known for and famous for a variety of things such as its iconic Statue of Liberty, exciting Broadway performances, and exclusive shops. The state and city have captivated people all over the globe, and it’s showing no signs of lessening its grip and influence on the rest of the world.
What about New York and the music scene, however? New York and music go hand-in-hand, with some of the biggest bands and musical performances coming from this high-rise city. In 2021, New York is still influencing the music scene.
The starting point for this lively patterned abstraction was an earlier canvas by Stuart Davis (1892 – 1964) entitled House and Street (1931). Treating each subsequent version as a riff on a jazz theme, Davis moved further and further away from his original composition to establish independent, rhythmic color patterns that retained only a few direct visual cues to the initial design. The Mellow Pad (1945 – 51) refers to the phrase “the mellow pad” — jazz lingo for the “cool” place to be. The pulsating colors and meandering forms seen here effectively mimic the dynamic rhythms of jazz. Davis developed his own style of Synthetic Cubism in which he dissolved figure and ground and referenced popular culture, adding a distinctly American sensibility to his abstractions
Norman Lewis (1909 – 1979), began his art career as a figurative painter, focusing on life in Harlem. In 1946, he announced that he wanted to create art that broke away from what he called “its stagnation in too much tradition.” Inspired by the writings and art of the Russian painter Vasily Kandinsky, one of the first artists to create abstract paintings, Lewis abandoned representation in favor of the “conceptual expression” of ideas. Like other Abstract Expressionists working in New York, Lewis was deeply interested in music, and especially jazz, which influenced the painting of Phantasy II (1946). In an automatic process, he made a linear composition with boldly colored lines and forms akin to the improvisational structure of jazz.
Don Cheadle is Miles Davis in Miles Ahead (All Images Courtesy of Sony Classics)
Movies about Trumpet Playing Jazz Legends are a thing right now. Just last week, IFC released Born to Be Blue, a surreal art film based loosely on the life and career of Chet Baker. This week, Miles Ahead — actor, and first-time director Don Cheadle’s much-anticipated love letter to another groundbreaking jazz innovator, Miles Davis — comes to the big screen after garnering all kinds of awards on last year’s festival circuit. It was worth the wait, because Miles Ahead is a fantastic film.
The thing to keep in mind about Miles Ahead going in is that, like Born to be Blue, it takes bit of artistic license with the facts in order to capture the essence of Davis‘ life and art. It is not disputed that Miles Davis changed music a bunch of times during his career. With Bitches Brew (an album that both fans and critics totally lose their minds over) he basically turned Jazz on its head as he added rock and funk to a style of music that previously never had any of those elements. And that was all inspired by his admiration for Jimi Hendrix! Davis was actually supposed to record with Hendrix, but the guitarist died that weekend! You can read these stories in the book Miles: The Autobiography, which is one of the craziest, most-engaging music biographies, ever.
Miles Ahead basically takes place during a five-year period in the late 1970s where Davis felt he had nothing left to say, so he became reclusive and descended into taking tons of drugs and sleeping with everything that moved. The way he describes it in the book is amazing; scary, but hilarious. One time, he was in an elevator and he was so high, he thought he was in his car, so he punched a lady who was in the elevator with him and he told her to get the fuck out of his car! There are a couple of similar moments in Miles Ahead, and they are just insane. But I digress.
As far as how wide a scope of the story of Miles Davis colorful life and considerable accomplishments are covered in this 100 minute film, let’s say that if Miles Ahead were a weekly TV series, then this would be one episode. Ewan McGregor co-stars as Dave Braden, a ballsy journalist who claims to be on assignment from Rolling Stone. Braden shows up on Davis’ doorstep (while the latter is most definitely wasted out of his mind) and tricks his way into the musician’s home under the guise of conducting an interview for a comeback story. Over the next couple of days, Braden alternately serves as either Davis’ perceived adversary or accidental sidekick, as the two men embark on a wild and sometimes harrowing adventure to recover a stolen tape of the musician’s latest compositions.
The story gains depth from many flashbacks, including those of Davis’ marriage to his first wife, Frances Taylor (played by Emayatzy Corinealdi), a dancer who gave up her career to marry him. Taylor was Davis’ muse during the period that he released several of his signature recordings, including the groundbreaking Sketches of Spain and Someday My Prince Will Come. To put it mildly, he was kind of a dick to her. Miles Davis also ruminates on other past triumphs and regrets, and the film’s jagged flashback style is an effective way to showcase his many inner demons.
Most importantly, Don Cheadle delivers an Oscar-caliber performance as Miles Davis, but he’s amazing in everything. From Boogie Nights to Hotel Rwanda to Showtime’s House of Lies; the man completely loses himself in every role. He’s a genius. Corinealdi is also excellent as Francis, and it’s always fun to see Ewan McGregor, though I believe his unique talents are mostly wasted in this role.
Maybe Miles Ahead isn’t the definitive Miles Davis life story, but when you’re feeling it, who gives a shit? You could make ten movies about Miles Davis and there would still be room for more. If you want a cradle-to-grave primer, read his book.
The Worley Gig Gives Miles Ahead Five out of Five Stars!
Miles Ahead Opens for a Limited Theatrical Release on April 1st, 2016. Consult Fandango Dot Com to find a theater where it is playing in your area.
Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in Robert Budreau’s, Born to Be Blue. (All Images Courtesy of IFC Films/Caitlin Cronenberg)
Perhaps a story doesn’t need to get all the facts exactly right in order to capture the creative and spiritual essence of a person’s life. In writer/director Robert Budreau’s new ‘anti-biopic,’ Born to Be Blue, the life lived by American Jazz Trumpeter Chet Baker is keenly interpreted by actor Ethan Hawke in a surreal but gritty performance that tells you all you need to know about the troubled musical genius — renowned as both a pioneer of the West Coast jazz scene and a style icon — who just couldn’t seem to get out of his own way. Born to Be Blue has a tight focus; imaginatively extrapolating several key, true events in Baker’s life, and launching his story at a time in the 1960s when he was struggling to come back musically after years of debilitating heroin addiction. But while drugs were a demon that Baker battled until the end of his life, this movie emphasizes how he never surrendered the passion he had for his art, or his determination to play music at the top of his game (albeit on his own terms).
Born to Be Blue opens on a scene of Baker being released from jail, based on an event in the early 1960s, when Baker was imprisoned on drug convictions in Italy, and producer Dino de Laurentiis approached him to star in a movie as himself. While that film never materialized in real life, Budreau uses the narrative device of Baker playing himself in a movie to set a dreamlike tone that accents both the improvisational nature of his music and also the opiate haze of his severe heroin dependency. The movie-within-the-movie is also shot in black and white, for transitional contrast with the ‘real life’ color sequences, which adds to the film’s often hypnagogic feel.
Carmen Ejogo as Jane
Born to Be Blue also takes on Baker’s stormy relationship with romance. While on the movie set, Chet meets Jane (played by Carmen Ejogo) a beautiful and smart actress playing his love interest. The two start a passionate affair in real life, and Jane becomes Chet’s muse, inspiring him creatively and giving him a place to live after he has basically become homeless. Jane’s character isn’t based on any one woman in Baker’s life, but rather she represents composite elements of his wives (he was married twice) and girlfriends into a fictitious female love interest, and Ejogo is vibrant in this role.
In 1968, Baker was the victim of a brutal beating from which he lost of most of his teeth. The film’s reenactment has Chet being attacked by drug dealers, to whom he owes money, as he and Jane leave a bowling alley together. Chet’s severe injuries all but completely destroy is ability to play the trumpet, and lead to filming on the movie being shut down permanently. Baker gets fitted for dentures, but physical pain, and frustration he feels at the loss of his embouchure (the use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece of the trumpet) make staying off heroin impossible. Ethan Hawke does a fantastic job of portraying Baker as a tortured artist who couldn’t see his way out of a life of addiction.
There are many scenes in Born to Be Blue of Chet Baker in the recording studio and also performing live, so fans of his music will not be disappointed. Hawke did all his own singing for the film, while versatile trumpet player, Kevin Turcotte, recreated all of Baker’s trumpet parts (Turcotte also portrays two other jazz trumpet players in the film, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie). The film culminates with the wildly suspenseful and emotionally harrowing retelling of Baker’s comeback show at New York’s famous Birdland Jazz Club, where he’s surrounded by his heroes, peers and fans. It’s not like we don’t already know how the story ends, but Hawke makes Baker’s choice between The Lady or The Tiger: trying to play inspired jazz on a dose of methadone, versus channeling his divine muse with just one more fix, creates authentic dramatic tension while breaking your heart into a million pieces.
It’s been said by those who knew Chet Baker that even the biographical documentary, Let’s Get Lost, contains numerous factual inaccuracies. Rather than call itself a definitive biography, Born to Be Blue is more like a love letter to Chet Baker, his ground breaking music, and his contribution to pop culture, despite his status as an unarguably flawed protagonist. As far as what is truth and what is fictitious, the film is comparable to Todd Haynes 2007 masterpiece, I’m Not There; where six characters embody a different aspect of the life and work of Bob Dylan. As long as it captures and honors the spirit of the artist, what else really matters?
The Worley Gig Gives Born to Be Blue Four out of Five Stars!
Born to Be Blue is now playing in limited release. Visit Fandango Dot Com to find a theater where it is playing in your area. The film will be available via Video on Demand starting March 31st.
As the surviving members of Queen continue their seemingly endless celebration of the band’s forty year anniversary – which kicked off with last year’sDeluxe Reissues of their entire catalog – an all new box set of Queen Tunes is about to be made available for fans who don’t mind throwing down $350: the Queen Orb Gift Box. A “true electronic age marvel,” the Golden Orb contains an ornately decorated USB drive, which holds all 15 (re-mastered) Queen studio albums – in both 320kbps MP3 and 24-bit 44.1kHz WAV format (fully PC and Mac compatible) – as well as a massive photo gallery to waste hours and hours of time looking at and downloading to your FaceBook page. Buyers also get a gold-plated Queen crest pendant necklace inside a tiny red velvet pouch, and, of course, the Golden Orb itself, which is quite impressive on its own (just look at it!). And it comes in a fancy black velvet box for storage. Fancy!
Produced in a limited edition series of 5,000 numbered units, The Queen Golden Orb (which quickly sold out its limited first run last December) will be available to purchase on April 2nd, 2012 at This Link.
See more details and the album listing after the jump!