Jazz, Rock and Blues Musicians Part II with more to come.
by Alix Cohen
Based on a composite of Lester Young (sax) and Bud Powell (piano.) Round Midnight 1986 Written and Directed by Bertrand Tavernier. Drawn from Dance of the Infidels written by Francis Paudras, who befriended Powell during his Paris expatriate days. This one casts real jazzmen, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter as well as Francois Cluzet and Philipe Noiret. The protagonist, sax player Dale Turner (Forest Whitaker), goes to Paris in hopes of acceptance and appreciation. He’s befriended by a graphic designer/uber fan who manages to help him kick drugs and alcohol.
When Dale decides to go back to New York, he takes Francois with him. There, the musician tries to reconnect with a daughter he abandoned as well as reinsinuate himself into the jazz community. His old dealer hovers, however, and not long after, back in Paris, Francois hears his friend died. The story may seem cliché, but it captures the underbelly of so many of these musicians’ lives. Netflix
Charlie “Bird” Parker- Bird 1988 Directed by Clint Eastwood. Forest Whitaker as Parker. From the trumpet player’s Kansas City youth, to “creating” Bebop with Dizzy Gillespie (Samuel E. Wright) on West 52nd Street, through his marriage to a dancer named Chan (Diane Verona) and strong, if intermittent friendship with heroin-addicted trumpet player, Red Rodney (Michael Zelniker)…Parker struggles with drugs and alcohol, a public who didn’t “get” bebop, and rocky relationships. (He died of a heart attack at 34.) A good look at the “scene.” Amazon Prime & Netflix
Chet Baker- Born To Be Blue 2015 Directed/written/produced by Robert Budreau. Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker- one of his best performances. Admittedly embroidered, the film utilizes facts to depict Baker’s heroin-stoked trajectory, his character, ill fated romantic life, and musicianship. Unremittingly dark and believable. Amazon Prime & Netflix
Billie Holiday- Lady Sings the Blues 1972 Directed by Sidney J. Furie Loosely based on Holiday’s autobiography. With Diana Ross, Billie Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, and Scatman Crothers. Ross tries like the devil, but never inhabits Holiday, everything looks Hollywood shiny, and the script is terrible. Netflix
With only a sketch biography, Lanie Roberson’s mostly performance play, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, may be a better way to get a feeling for the woman, if not the vicissitudes of her life. Directed on Broadway by Lonny Price. Starring the great Audra McDonald. On Broadway HD
Miles Davis- Miles Ahead 2015 Co-Writer & Director Don Cheadle ( directorial debut.) With Cheadle, Emayatzy Corinealdi, and Ewan McGregor. Like a jazz riff, the film jumps around, opening after Davis’ five year hiatus in the 1970s during which he’s preoccupied with a failed marriage plagued by abuse and infidelity, addiction to painkillers for a deteriorating hip, and his ravaged voice. A fictional music journalist agrees to help find a stolen tape evoking flashbacks. Redemption comes with music. Impressionistic, but effective. Amazon Prime & Netflix
Ray Charles- Ray 2004 Directed, written and produced by Taylor Hackford. Starring Jamie Foxx (Best Actor Academy Award) Raised by sharecroppers, Ray Charles went blind from glaucoma at the age of seven. His indomitable mother saw to it her boy had the opportunity to pursue his love of music, beginning with classical training, learning scores with Braille.
Charles was more interested in country, jazz, and blues, however. All of these genres plus rock, soul, and gospel come together in the musician’s work. We watch as, starting on the chitlin circuit, he works his way up to international renown, ego and volatility expanding in tandem with musicianship and the probability of graft. Apparently quite accurate. A helluva performance. Amazon Prime & Netflix
Tina Turner- What’s Love Got To Do With It? 1993 Adapted from the book I, Tina, co-written by Turner with Kurt Loder. Directed by Brian Gibson. Angela Bassett is Tina Turner, Laurence Fishburne, Ike Turner. Bassett lip syncs, while Fishburne sings. Anna Mae Bullock (Tina) is poor and miserable until discovered by charismatic professional Ike Turner and added to his band. Ike mentors the grateful, suggestible talent, romance evolves, they marry.
Ike turns jealous, abusive, and violent fueled first by alcohol then drugs while Tina’s star rises. When she finally has the courage to leave, her career plummets. Life is hardscrabble until Roger Davies becomes her manager and fights the powers that be to ignite her solo career. A glimpse at the rough road of a tough woman. Amazon Prime & Netflix
James Brown- Get On Up 2014 Directed by Tate Taylor. Chadwick Boseman, who plays Brown, did his own dancing and some singing. With Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis. By the time he’s 17, James Brown lands in juvenile prison (for stealing a suit.) While there, he’s inspired by a singing group and joins one with an ex-prison mate when he gets out. The young man looks up to Little Richard who makes it a point to play for African American audiences.
A style develops, work comes and goes, there are two wives, some knee-jerk violence, and a disproportionately swelled head. It all comes out right in the end. The Godfather of Soul worked until almost the end of his life. Get On Up is nonlinear and a bit disjointed, but Brown’s life as a consummate showman is well imagined. Amazon Prime & Netflix
Buddy Holly– The Buddy Holly Story 1978 Adapted from Buddy Holly: His Life and Music by John Goldrosen. Directed by Steve Rash. Perhaps the most credible performance Gary Busey has ever delivered. Though guitar parts were overdubbed, he did his own singing and lost considerable weight for the role. Only if you’re particularly interested in the musician. Amazon Prime
Jerry Lee Lewis- Great Balls of Fire 1989 Based on a biography by Myra Lewis and Murray M. Silver Jr. Directed by Jim McBride. With young, fiery Dennis Quaid in the role of wildman, rockabilly pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis whose marriage to his 13 year-old cousin almost wrecked his career, driving him to drink and spousal abuse. (He married another 6 times). Can be purchased on Amazon, but not streamed.