A & E, Movie Reviews

Envisioning music-makers

Don Cheadle in Miles Ahead.

If the current schedule of releases is any indication, the movie industry can’t get enough of on-screen biographies about notable musicians — especially ones with checkered careers, addiction problems, romantic travails and, to put it delicately, dramatic last acts. This month on the big screen, you’ll be able to catch films about cool-jazz innovator Chet Baker, country-western legend Hank Williams, and multifaceted jazz giant Miles Davis.

The sudden preponderance of music-oriented biopics might be surprising, but this is no new wrinkle. The genre resulted in Oscars for stars of recent motion pictures including Ray, on the life of supreme soul singer and pianist Ray Charles; Walk the Line, about the relationship between country music royals Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash; and La Vie en Rose, the story of beloved French chanteuse Edith Piaf.

Going a little further back in film history, there have been more than a few celebrated features focusing on legendary performers: What’s Love Got to Do with It? (Tina Turner), La Bamba (Richie Valens), Sweet Dreams (Patsy Cline), Bird (Charlie Parker), Great Balls of Fire (Jerry Lee Lewis), Lady Sings the Blues (Billie Holliday), Coal Miner’s Daughter (Loretta Lynn), and so forth. We shouldn’t forget well-made, albeit less renowned fare such as Nowhere Boy (concerning the teenage John Lennon) and Control (investigating the tragic circumstances that befell Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis).

Selena, Woody Guthrie, and Glenn Miller all received memorable and treasured onscreen treatment. It’s doubtful that the 2016 filmic portrayals of Baker, Williams, and Davis will be so esteemed down the line. If nothing else, these three remarkable talents and the music they made are getting well-deserved exposure.


Though Chet Baker isn’t a household name today, the trumpet player’s economical phrasing and laconic, intimate vocal delivery were integral to the rise of the West Coast school of cool jazz. He recorded a number of critically acclaimed albums in the 1950s, and was even moving into the Hollywood scene with a part in a 1955 film titled Hell’s Horizon when his career and life began to go off the rails due to drug addiction.

Born to Be Blue is a strangely constructed, willfully theatrical, almost surreal account of Baker’s life by Canadian screenwriter and director Robert Budreau that seems to have taken some liberties with the facts and the actual people involved. It may fictionalize some elements, but it generally works. Baker is passionately portrayed by Ethan Hawke as a white man struggling for recognition and respect from his African-American peers in the jazz world led by notoriously critical and haughty fellow trumpeter Miles Davis. In Born to Be Blue (as in reality), Baker is a victim of self-destructive behavior, earning jail time for his drug habit and encountering violence that threatens his ability to play his instrument. Even the love of a good woman in the form of an actress (Carmen Ejogo) who becomes his lover can’t save him from himself. A late-in-career comeback doesn’t really change the downbeat vibe of Born to Be Blue, which is given an ideal soundtrack by Baker’s moody, hurt-infused recordings. If you watch and listen, prepare to be bummed out.

Born to Be Blue is currently playing in San Francisco theaters.


The rise and final years of Hank Williams, a true country music icon, are covered in I Saw the Light, a dutifully executed, somewhat flat trip to the cultural heart of the American South during the late 1940s and early 1950s. In this instance, the template suffers from a bit of fatigue. As Williams finds success on his journey from bandleader on a rural Alabama radio station to universally appreciated singer and songwriter on the starry stage of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, he must also confront marital strife and wrestle with alcoholism and pill dependency.

Williams is convincingly embodied in presence and voice by U.K. actor Tom Hiddleston, best known as the villainous Norse god Loki in Marvel’s superhero blockbusters Thor and The Avengers. In an unexpected turn, Hiddleston sings ole Hank’s familiar material with skill and heart, and he’s no slouch when it comes to showing the pain and desperation that Williams must have felt as he tried to deal with the needs of his wife, Audrey. The latter, played in more than competent fashion by Elizabeth Olsen, insisted on singing with her husband as he rose to acclaim, regardless of her vocal shortcomings. Audrey is a thankless role for Olsen, and though the viewer may feel for the character, her ongoing and unrealistic aspirations become wearisome and contribute to a lack of impact in the climax wherein, as expected, a major popular artist meets his demise way before his time. The movie’s shortcomings aside, Hiddleston’s performance as Williams is reason enough to see I Saw the Light.

I Saw the Light is currently playing at the Clay Theater (2261 Fillmore Street).


There aren’t many figures in the panoply of music that inspire more adoration and controversy than Miles Davis. As a result, director and actor Don Cheadle may have bitten off more than he could chew with Miles Ahead, his ambitious, episodic look at the protean, game-changing virtuoso. In a fashion similar to Born to Be Blue, Miles Ahead toys with the truth, specifics of events, and the behavior or identity of certain people significant to the master of the jazz trumpet. Narrative isn’t as important as the impression one gets from the entirety, perhaps as a nod to the feeling one can get from an improvised solo.

Cheadle, who co-authored the script and plays Davis, chooses to make the musician’s self-imposed, pain-fraught, drug-addled five-year hiatus in the 1970s as the centerpiece of his look at the thin line between genius and madness. A conniving journalist (Ewan McGregor) latches onto Davis to get an exclusive interview and tags along on a quest for a missing master tape. Meanwhile, Davis has fevered flashbacks suggesting that the main catalyst for his astonishing creativity as a composer and instrumentalist, as well as his unpredictable behavior and radical emotional swings, was his stormy and ultimately broken relationship with dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), the woman who served as his muse at a significant and fruitful point in his career.

Ultimately, Miles Ahead is as erratic as its subject, zigzagging here and there in time and space, and never coalescing into a cogent portrait of Davis — Cheadle’s fine and fevered acting notwithstanding. And it never unearths the true roots of this influential innovator’s brilliance. A bizarre coda with Miles, back from the dead and jamming with a group of current jazz luminaries, just clouds the picture even more.

Miles Ahead opens April 8 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema (1 Embarcadero Center).


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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, via, Roku, and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster