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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Jazz Icons on Film

Jazz Icons on Film

Two recent film releases have prompted this piece, though several of the artists featured here have been on my list for a while. They all share a history of drug problems, complex lives and artistic brilliance.

The films in question are ‘Born to be Blue’, and ‘Miles Ahead’, loosely based on the lives and times of Chet Baker and Miles Davis, respectively. There are striking similarities between the films. Both concern gifted trumpet players with a history of heroin use. Both focus on periods leading up to comebacks in the musicians’ respective careers. Interestingly, both also take what may kindly be dubbed an ‘improvisational’ approach to their subject, perhaps in keeping with the music in question. Large segments of each film may be viewed as extrapolations based on real events- or outright fiction, depending on one’s persuasion. I should confess that I am not usually a fan of this style of bio-pic (The King’s Speech being a particular bugbear of mine), but in the spirit of appreciating a good jazz solo, I decided to go with the flow in both instances. Two great soundtracks helped, of course.


For my money, ‘Miles Ahead’ is the more rewarding effort. Don Cheadle plays Miles Davis to great effect, complete with intimidating swagger and trademark rasp. Although the fictional sub-plot (complete with gun-toting villains and car chase) is distracting, Ewan McGregor’s character, a believably amoral music journalist, provides an interesting foil for Cheadle’s portrayal. This is of a burned out Davis, stubbornly avoiding the world, while on one level desperately seeking a way to reengage with his talent and career. Though factual accuracy is not high on the agenda, there is verisimilitude in the film’s capturing a spirit of initial hopelessness and subsequent revival in keeping with Davis’ actual biography in the mid to late 1970s.


Disappointingly, ‘Born to be Blue’ is less successful. Chet Baker has been on my list of potential subjects for some time, due to his enormously colourful personal life, as well as his splendid music. Renowned for having great ‘natural’ ability, Baker was widely respected as one of the most talented trumpeters of his generation and combined his musical skill, fervent ambition and exceptional good looks to create a brilliant early career. Yet Baker was also a recalcitrant individual, whose extreme behaviour and drug use led to continuous conflict with authorities, including an 18-month prison term in Italy in the early 1960s. He left behind a string of broken marriages, tarnished by his domestic abuse, and appears to have woefully neglected his children. He could be manipulative and deceitful, often in his quest to maintain his drug habit. ‘Born to be Blue’ reflects some of this, but while the portrayal by Ethan Hawke is skilful in reflecting Baker’s mannerisms and approach to music, it is ultimately overly sympathetic. Due to the sheer volume of potential material to be covered in a feature-length film, ‘Born to be Blue’ may perhaps be forgiven for fusing together characters and incidents from Baker’s life into simplified versions, but few of Baker’s less appealing characteristics are captured, and the lingering feeling is one of an incomplete portrait.

Chet Baker - Let's get lost


Bird and Round Midnight


For a more satisfying take on the real thing, readers should seek out Bruce Weber's Oscar-nominated 1988 documentary ‘Let’s Get Lost’. Though sometimes meandering, the film is unflinching, moving and sometimes unsettling, revealing deeper truths about Baker’s life, including the trail of emotional destruction he left in his wake. While Weber greatly admired Baker, and was clearly sympathetic to his struggles with addiction, he also gives voice to many intimate contacts who were betrayed or ill-treated by his subject. The result in a much more nuanced and realistic account of a brilliant and troubled individual. To my mind, he would probably have met criteria for antisocial personality disorder, to my ears, his music retains its allure.

Two further films from the 1980s merit a mention here. Firstly, ‘Round Midnight’ (1986), directed by the French director Bertrand Tavernier. The film stars legendary saxophonist Dexter Gordon as Dale Turner, a fictional American jazz musician in the 1950s. Turner is thought to represent a spiritual likeness of real-life contemporaries of Gordon, namely Lester Young and, particularly, Bud Powell (whose tragic biography is synopsized here). The film is understated and slow-moving, but enlivened by the performance of Gordon, who received an Oscar nomination for his outstanding portrayal. Again, the soundtrack is hugely enjoyable, and the Paris jazz-club scenes are captivating. Secondly, Clint Eastwood’s ‘Bird’ (1988), about the life of Charlie Parker, is a must-watch for anyone interested in jazz or the lives of its icons. Not without its critics, again largely for playing loose with the facts, it is nonetheless a fascinating work. Highly influential in the development of bepop jazz, Parker was probably the first jazz icon to be widely known as a heroin addict, and tragically died as the result of his drug use at the age of just 34. Forrest Whitaker’s startling portrayal alone is worth the watch- all 155 minutes.


I welcome feedback on these films from readers, and suggestions on other jazz films of note. We also have an active Twitter account for the blog, where I am always happy to take suggestions for other pieces and interviews.


(Note- I will feature ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ in a future piece on Billie Holiday.)


Other suggested reading:


Richard Brody’s hard-hitting takedown of the widely-lauded ‘Whiplash’.


Joe Queenan’s Guardian review of ‘Born to be Blue’ and ‘Miles Ahead’



Musical recommendations:


Miles Davis ‘The Pan Piper’ from ‘Sketches of Spain’, one of his most celebrated albums.


Chet Baker sings and plays ‘Almost Blue’, written by Elvis Costello, inspired in turn by Baker.


Dexter Gordon in ‘Round Midnight’.


Charlie Parker (as played by Forrest Whitaker) in ‘Bird’.


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Minds in Music

Minds in Music

  John Tully  


Dr John Tully is a forensic psychiatrist and researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, London. He is also a musician and is interested in the role of the arts in mental health.