Hollywood often sings the same tune when it comes to biopics: the “greatest hits” approach is typically a box-checking, life-spanning paradigm that rarely gets under the skin of a subject. The result can often be more akin to a waxwork than a complex, compelling portrait of a human. They win Oscars and inform us about the lives of everyone from Mahatma Gandhi to Ray Charles, but they don’t necessarily capture their essence.
Eschewing that structure even when adopting traditional formalism in the telling can go a long way. One of the things that made Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” so compelling in recent years is that they focused on seminal moments in the lives of Abraham Lincoln (passing the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) and Martin Luther King Jr. (the Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965), rather than following them from the cradle to the grave.
Two current films were made with an understanding of the power of an atypical approach, and interestingly enough, they center on artists who made their names in a musical genre built on a foundation of boundary-breaking: jazz. In Robert Budreau’s “Born to Be Blue,” Ethan Hawke stars as West Coast cool jazz innovator Chet Baker in more of a kaleidoscope of the man’s middle age than a factual representation of it. Meanwhile, in “Miles Ahead,” Don Cheadle directs himself as the legendary Miles Davis during a brief period in the late-1970s just before his resurgence.
“You don’t need to know the person’s whole life story,” Hawke says. “You want to feel like you’ve actually met them.”
Hawke still had an itch to scratch after a previous Baker project fell through years ago with frequent collaborator Richard Linklater at the helm. That would have been a younger incarnation, depicting Baker on the rise in the 1950s bebop scene. In Budreau’s treatment, which begins with the trumpeter starring in an avant garde film about his own life, Hawke saw a unique opportunity to find truth in the abstract.
“I thought the idea of playing Chet Baker playing himself was kind of hypnotizing,” he says. “It got at the whole thing I don’t normally like about biopics: creating some false narrative out of a life. Because lifetimes don’t really have a beginning, middle and end, in story terms, anyway.”
Cheadle’s film, meanwhile, even begins with an open dismissal of customary biographical storytelling. A reporter (Ewan McGregor) questions the mythic pioneer about the chronology of his life, only to be shut down completely by an artist bored with the procedure. How would Davis put it, the reporter asks? The legend puts his trumpet to his lips, and in a smash cut to a lively once-upon-a-time car chase, out comes the film.
“We’re through the looking glass [in that moment],” Cheadle says. “We’re going to let this creative artist show us what creativity looks like. We wanted to externalize an internal process, to be experiential, not didactic and instructional.”
For Cheadle, a nontraditional approach was of the utmost importance with a subject like Davis in particular. “With someone who was so challenging in how he approached his art form and hated to repeat himself and never wanted to do anything the same way twice, it felt like it would have been a specific affront to him to do something that ran down the same kind of road,” Cheadle says.
That was in fact part of his pitch to Davis’ family, who supported Cheadle entirely in his endeavor. The Oscar-nominated actor was venturing behind the camera for the first time in his career and was already “nothing but nerves held slightly together by other material that was Don Cheadle,” as he puts it, but knowing that he was constructing the kind of experience that would have pleased his subject helped him maintain confidence.
“I knew that certain people, and potentially a lot of Miles Davis fans and aficionados, were gonna say, ‘How are you gonna tell a movie like this and not talk about Charlie Parker and not talk about John Coltrane and not talk about the making of ‘Kind of Blue’ or the making of ‘Bitches Brew’ and how dare you,'” Cheadle confides. “But thankfully, I had his son and Vincent Wilburn, his nephew who played with him, who were like, ‘Dude, Miles didn’t care about any of that stuff.’ Miles said, ‘If you want to know who I am, listen to my music, and let’s just keep moving.’ He didn’t want to look back. He wanted to go forward.”
Hawke felt emboldened to find his own rhythm with Baker largely because of the conflicting material about the late musician’s life. He would talk to friends and former acquaintances, many of whom would point out that “Let’s Get Lost” — Bruce Weber’s Oscar-nominated 1988 documentary about Baker — was a dishonest portrayal. “Chet was playing Bruce,” they’d tell him. “He’d say anything to get a little more money.”
Meanwhile, there were countless stories of Baker’s general good nature and sense of humor that clashed with moody photos that appeared to capture a haunted soul. Hawke notes that when people are being photographed, they’re often trying to project an image, so much of the Baker iconography fails to reflect the introverted, shy, funny and even fragile man he would observe in interviews.
“So if the documentary isn’t the guy his friends knew, and the photos aren’t the guy, and the friends hate the biographies — it kind of gave me permission to run free with just how I related to him and how I imagined him, right or wrong,” Hawke says. “I had to try to just make it a character and not a real guy. The ‘real guy’ you can find on Wikipedia.”
And naturally, the wonderful thing about being so experimental in the approach is that it pays homage to the music itself.
“Jazz musicians do this all the time, take a classic song — whether it’s ‘My Favorite Things’ or ‘Summertime’ or whatever it is — and you just riff on it,” Hawke says. “This movie is a riff on the life of Chet Baker. Well, there’s other riffs. It’s a big legend, and there’s other windows to look through. I have this hope that Rick [Linklater] will get to make his movie and we’ll have Chet at 20, Chet at 40 [in ‘Born to Be Blue’] and Chet nearing 60 there in ‘Let’s Get Lost.’ It would be a great trifecta.”
Cheadle has a similar thought. “I wanted to do something that feels improvisational and is free-form and kind of gangster and wild and is the experience that we have when we listen to all of these different iterations of Miles’ music,” he says. “I wanted to come up with a film that feels like it’s an experience of Miles Davis, as opposed to making a movie that feels like it’s the Cliff’s Notes of his life.”