As we give thought and ruminate about going into a new decade, (the 2020s) the state of Jazz in film is one that stirs up mixed feelings within me. The creative portrayal of Jazz on screen and film is the one that gives me great pause. This is because the product there is so scarce and uneven. Now the Jazz Documentary is in rare form with the excellent Miles Davis Biographical documentary, the John Coltrane piece that occurred several years ago, and the outstanding Documentary on Lee Morgan, “I Called him Morgan” are just some of the films that show the strength of the Jazz Documentary that does not seem to be relenting anytime soon.
My cause for pause goes to the dramatic theatrical releases that have come to represent the body of Jazz music in the past couple of decades, and how it reflects on the genre of Jazz itself. The most recent culprit of this cultural negligence would be (unfortunately) Don Cheadle’s muddled attempt to tell a Miles Davis story in “Miles Ahead”. Now notice I said “a” Miles Davis story, not “THE” Miles Davis story. I personally believe there can be many variations on a theme, that is to say different ways of recalling or telling a specific kind of tales from various perspectives, or a certain point in time to really convey the essence of an individual, a point in time, or a momentous event. It depends on the artistry, craft, care, commitment and skill of the director, producer, or artist involved. It also is at the mercy of money counters, people with their own axes to grind, and the vision or lack of vision of your creative team.
Now to be fair to Don Cheadle, he had to go up against a lot of conflicting interests just to get that film made. He had to deal with the studio suits, who INSISTED that he had to have a White protagonist as his “sidekick” to show Miles the “way”; otherwise he would not get the money to make the film, and he also had to contend with Miles’ first ex-wife Frances as Executive Producer about what would be portrayed in the film. Even though he made a valiant attempt to portray that part of Miles life, with some often nice moments in the film, it ultimately came off as an acid-tripping cartoonish shoot-em up, with Cheadle running around as Miles in an absurd Car chase with his “Robin” Ewan MacGregor playing the forgettable reporter that was forced on the script by the suits. Imagine, no I take that back, LOOK at what was conceptualized and PUT ON FILM with the ridiculous car chase, Miles shooting with a .45 caliber revolver like the man who couldn’t shoot straight, and the bumbling Goombahs who were pursuing them in that outlandish deuce-and-a-quarter (Electra 225 for the uninitiated). The sad thing is this “vision” is now part of the filmography of work on Miles Davis.
Thankfully as I said earlier, the nature of film, and the larger than life personalities it lends itself to, allows for different interpretations of other eras and epochs, in peoples stories that may not have to contend with some of the hindrances that Cheadle had to endure putting this film out. I personally thought he (Don Cheadle) was the perfect person to portray Miles Davis, he just had too many obstacles in his way to effectively get the job done.
Which brings me to the legendary Clint Eastwood and his 1988 production of “BIRD” the story of Charlie “YARDBIRD” Parker. An admirable effort by Eastwood to cast the versatile Forrest Whittaker as the Titular character ‘Bird’ and ambitious effort to get the film made. It was this film that revealed to the world Eastwood’s personal love and appreciation of Jazz as an art-form, and a music he fully embraced and enjoyed immensely himself. When the film was made and produced there had not been a jazz themed movie made in decades, Not since ‘Paris Blues’ with Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman, debuted in 1961. So it was certainly a needed and necessary film. Unfortunately it focused overwhelmingly on the pathos and dysfunctionality of Charlie Parker’s drug addiction. Now that was an undisputed fact and to some level had to be, indeed needed to be portrayed. The problem was that the movie didn’t explore the developing musicianship of Bird. The movie played as if one day Charlie Parker appeared fully formed on the Band stand and just started playing fully formed, a Genius! This was a major criticism of the ‘BIRD’ film by musicians, because music players know that practice, practice, practice. That is what musicians did, done, and do to perfect their craft. The diminishment of that, and the lack of portrayal of this trait trivializes the WORK that all music players put in to portraying that music that we all like to hear.
There were also complaints about the dark tone of the film, but ultimately I believe that was more of an aesthetic concern of personal preference than anything else. With all of those perceived and actual flaws, ‘BIRD’ was a movie that needed to be seen.
Now we get to the MO BETTER BLUES. Most people look at that Movie as a seminal Spike Lee Joint! However it is one of the better jazz themed films that has ever been made. One of the key things that Lee did in ‘MO BETTER BLUES’ is that he showed the lead character Bleek Gilliam portrayed by Denzel Washington, PRACTICING. I cannot stress how important it is that this aspect of musicianship be portrayed upon the screen for folks (especially young people) to see the actual work that goes into the production of good music. The key component of this film is the practicing. From his portrayal as a young child to his adulthood, it showed the ritual of practice, and the fact that he set aside time specifically for that purpose. What purpose? The Perfection of his craft upon the trumpet. These are the little things that you need to see in a film. The conflict between the musicians was also necessary to display the discord regarding what type of music the band would play and what the audience would want to hear. That was a very real concern for the transition of Jazz music all the way from the 1970’s to the 1990’s and beyond.
Another good point was the actual friction of egos, personalities, and preferences of different members of the band. At times these frictions would result in fractures in the band which results in splits and departures by various or all members of the band. Lee also explored the complicated nature of interpersonal love relationships between men and women that existed in the context of the Jazz world, and truly beyond just the world of Jazz. These dynamics have always existed at one level or another wherever musicians have existed. Another aspect of relationships that Lee touched upon was the connections between Black Male musicians and their White female admirers or fans and how that would at times bring unwanted scrutiny of the music and the scene created by the dynamic of the music that many times brought the unwanted attention and hostility of Neanderthal policemen that was graphically illustrated in the movie Miles Ahead. Lee showed the various disputes that arose around those issues in very human ways.
Many of the human and music themes explored in MO BETTER BLUES were glossed over because it is viewed as a typical Spike Lee kind of picture, with these issues omnipresent but easy to ignore because of the sometimes explicit silliness that Lee can bring to his films. However it is exactly because that those little dimes and clues are ignored and subconsciously overlooked that gives due credit to Lee’s brilliance as a film maker. He weaves the silly and superfluous with iron-clad societal discussions that we get and comment upon even if we are not seeking them out.
This is why MO BETTER BLUES is one of the serious jazz films made and deserves a second, and even a third look for reflection and understanding. It’s about Jazz!