As Don Cheadle’s all-encompassing Miles Davis movie Miles Ahead arrives on our screens, we welcome a very good jazz movie to the fold. Miles Ahead is very subtly a deeply jazz movie – its approach to narrative is as modal as anything remotely mainstream will allow and Cheadle sows the seeds of his knowledge very careful throughout, tracing the evolution of Miles’ music from bebop, cool and orchestral to the fusion years, even to hip hop.
It might not be one of the great biopics, but it is an addition to the canon of very good jazz movies. Here, I nod my head and stroke my goatee in the direction of five of my favourites in this genre:
Bird – In a role originally meant for Richard Pryor, Forest Whitaker towers as Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood’s sobering 1988 biopic, winning Best Actor at Cannes. Bird set the tone for many music biopics to follow a mosaic, impressionistic style rather than a traditional, linear approach to the narrative. Looking at Bird’s role in the birth of modern jazz, with his mentor Dizzy Gillespie (Samuel E Wright), the real shock is at the death, in 1955: a reporter guesses Bird was 65 years old, and is told he is in fact 34, such were the effects of drink and drugs.
Round Midnight – Real-life jazz man Dexter Gordon gives one of the great performances as exiled saxophonist Dale Turner taken under the wing of Francois Cluzet’s Parisian jazz fan in Bertrand Tavernier’s wonderful 1986 film. Martin Scorsese has a great, fast-talking cameo and Herbie Hancock brings things to a close with a live concert, just as he does in Miles Ahead. “Aimez-vous basketball?”
Straight No Chaser – an amazing documentary by Charlotte Zwerin, partly produced by Clint Eastwood in 1988 after hours of lost footage was found, it features Thelonious Monk in close up. It’s some of the most amazing jazz footage ever, of Monk both in concert and off-stage, whirling like a dervish, full of too many notes.
All Night Long – soon to be showcase as part of BFI’s Shakespeare on Film season, this is a 1962 British jazz scene update on Othello. A significant piece about race as well as sex and jealousy, it stars Patrick McGoohan, Paul Harris and Richard Attenborough but also features some real-life jazz greats in swinging action – Dave Brubeck, John Dankworth, Tubby Hayes, Charles Mingus.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day – a superlative concert documentary shot by fashion photographer Bert Stern at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, this has become a touchstone for all concert movies. Sets are interspersed with shot of the sea, yachts and the crowd and there is little to no narration other than the stage announcer. Legends captured in performance include: Louis Armstrong, Anita O’Day, Gerry Mulligan, Duke Ellington and an amazing finale of Mahalia Jackson singing the Lord’s Prayer. You’ll wish you were there.