Don Cheadle as Miles Davis CREDIT Brian Douglas COURTESY Sony Pictures Classics

Don Cheadle directs and stars in Miles Ahead, a mercurial portrait of the jazz icon Miles Davis. Cheadle’s uncanny physical transformation and convincing performance conjures up the quixotic trumpeter while the soundtrack, heavily laden with Davis’ own recordings, is a well-chosen accompaniment to the fictional plot point that is the impetus for this uncommonly good piece of cinematic entertainment.

Set in 1979, at the end of a fallow period of creativity that stretched for five years when Davis was more interested in drugs than playing his instrument, the film revolves around the stolen tape of Davis’ first recording session since his withdrawal from the scene. Issues with his record company and various unscrupulous producers get conflated with a Rolling Stone writer looking for a story, the simultaneous search for cocaine and the recovery of the tape, along with flashbacks to the 1950s and Davis’ memories of his second wife, Frances Taylor. (Her face adorned several of his album covers, including Someday My Prince Will Come -- there’s a subtle reference to it in the film.)

Emayatzy Corinealdi as Franes Taylor CREDIT Brian Douglas COURTESY Sony Pictures Classics

Steven Baigelman and Cheadle’s script avoids the pitfalls of most music bio-pics by not being a bio-pic. Instead the focus is on a specific period of the subject’s life with allusions to another, all in the service of presenting the protagonist as a working musician (or a blocked one; as Davis puts it early on, he stopped playing because he has nothing to say).

The movie opens with Agharta: Prelude Part 2, slides into Kind of Blue’s iconic So What, pointedly uses Jack Johnson’s Duran as we see an old newsreel of Johnson boxing Jim Jeffries, brings commercial radio into play with a DJ and Solea from Sketches from Spain, introduces Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi) with Frelon Brun from Filles de Kilimanjaro, takes us inside the master’s dishevelled lair with Rolling Stone journalist, Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), before Braden and Davis drive uptown in Davis’ Jaguar accompanied by the short, sharp, jagged sounds of We Want Miles’ Back Seat Betty. By the middle of the film’s first act, its score has already reached the heights of Clint Eastwood’s Bird, Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight and Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (which Davis himself composed in 1958).

There’s a brief flashback to Davis’ life with Frances listening to Chopin, Stravinsky and Ravel, “revolutionaries, innovators.” And a remarkable re-creation of the recording session of Gone from Porgy and Bess, working with Teo Macero and Gil Evans. As well as a brief interchange in a club between Davis and Bill Evans, with Coltrane and others performing Blue in Green from Kind of Blue, just before Davis goes outside for a cigarette and gets hassled/arrested by a racist cop.

Don Cheadle as the younger Miles Davis CREDIT Brian Douglas COURTESY Sony Pictures Classics

The movie’s present is kinetic, edgy, movement-based; the flashbacks are cool and reflective. Many of the scenes were written with specific Davis tunes in mind. The scenes were shot to the music playing in the background, which goes a long way to explain the seamless integration of sound and image.

Cheadle learned to play the trumpet (with the help of Wynton Marsalis) and did so in several scenes. Even though we never hear him, it’s a big part of the actor becoming the character.

Other key elements of the soundtrack are the elusive Wayne Shorter tune Sanctuary from Bitches Brew, the uncannily contemporary Black Satin from On the Corner, the funky Go Ahead John from Big Fun, Nefertiti (which plays throughout an argument between Davis and Frances), Teo from Someday My Prince Will Come, He Loved Him Madly from Get Up With It and Moja Part 1 and 2 from Dark Magus Live at Carnegie Hall (which perfectly underscores the climactic chase scene) are other key elements of the soundtrack.

The film ends with a comeback fantasy jam, “What’s Wrong with That?,”  written by Robert Glasper, that imagines Cheadle as Davis playing in the present day with guest performers Glasper, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Gary Clark, Jr., Esperanza Spalding and Antonio Sanchez. Cheadle sports #Social Music on his shirt, a reference to Davis’ preferred sobriquet for jazz, a term he disliked. Whatever it’s called, music has seldom been this well integrated into a movie.

Miles Ahead is currently playing at the Cineplex Varsity and VIP Cinemas.

Christian Bale

The opening today of Knight of Cups at the Cineplex Cinemas Varsity is a reminder that Terrence Malick has had a significant classical music component in all of his films, beginning with Badlands (1973) and its haunting use of Satie’s Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear. (He’s also capable of a popular music throwdown: in Badlands it was Mickey & Sylvia’s Love Is Strange). For Days of Heaven (1978), Malick memorably turned to Saint-Saëns’ Aquarium from Carnival of the Animals but he also used Leo Kottke and Doug Kershaw to support Ennio Morricone, who composed the bulk of the soundtrack.

Malick hired Hans Zimmer to score The Thin Red Line (1998) and James Horner for The New World (2005) but ended up discarding much of their work, concentrating on Zimmer’s atmospherics and scrapping some of Horner for the simple eloquence of the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 K488 and a portion of Wagner’s Prelude to Das Rheingold. By the time of Tree of Life (2011) and To the Wonder (2012), Malick had basically gone full Kubrick, outsourcing much of the soundtrack to pre-existing music leaving Alexandre Desplat’s Tree of Life score dwarfed by music by Tavener, Preisner, Górecki, Mahler, Respighi, Holst, Smetana, Brahms, Berlioz, Mozart, Bach, Couperin, Schumann and Arsenije Jovanović (whose audio artistry combining voices, instruments, field recordings and manipulated sound struck such a chord with Malick that he used excerpts from Jovanović’s works in his last three films).

It’s not only the extraordinary use of Wagner’s Prelude to Act One from Parsifal which elevated the Mont Saint-Michel episode of To the Wonder, it’s the way Malick piled on phrase upon phrase with (often) unrecognizable bits of many works, among them Haydn’s The Seasons and Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite no. 2, the second and third movements of Górecki’s Symphony No.3, the third movement of Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus and Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 to Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead.

Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale

And so it goes with Malick’s latest film, Knight of Cups, a sound and image poem leaning heavily on the classics, with compositions by Arvo Pärt, Pachelbel, Corelli, Chopin, Górecki’s Symphony No.3 (again), Beethoven’s Ninth, Bruch’s Kol Nidrei and some contemporary poptronica from Biosphere and others. Much of the soundtrack is imperceptible or buried in layers, part of an overall sound design. Malick loves the low clarinet figure from Wojciech Kilar’s Exodus, which he makes into a questioning leitmotif for Christian Bale’s title character’s life gone askew. Vaughan Williams’ Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis has always been a go-to source of celestial beauty, as it is here. Malick repeatedly returns to Grieg’s The Death of Ase as a grounding device for Bale’s failed marriage to Cate Blanchett and uses Grieg’s Solveig’s Song as a point of peaceful repose. Debussy’s Sirènes from his Nocturnes for Orchestra and Six épigraphes antiques: Pour  l'égyptienne, as well as his Images for Orchestra, alternately buoy and add a sense of mystery to the proceedings.

Bale plays a successful screenwriter whose life is presented in fragments as he narrates the film, describing the memories his mind seems to be conjuring up onscreen. Voiceover, a Malick trademark from Day One, here takes the form of Bale’s interior monologues -- in fact, it’s hard to remember a moment where his character speaks directly to another. He’s the recipient of much philosophical badinage, often from women with whom he’s involved. (“Dreams are nice but you can’t live in them” and “You live in a fantasy; you can be whoever you want to be.”) He suffers from an overbearing father (Brian Dennehy, his hefty role bent by old age) and somewhat strained relations with his brother (Wes Bentley). There’s a deliberate parallel with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, as Bale tries to save his soul in L.A.’s lotus land. (The film opens with John Gielgud reading from Bunyan’s poem.)

With Emmanuel Lubezki’s rapturous cinematography, there’s even more to catch your attention. But as Antonio Banderas’ bon vivant character says early on: “Music is playing; it helps me to fall in love.”

Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker

Chet Baker, the epitome of West Coast cool, won the DownBeat Reader’s Poll as best trumpeter over Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown in 1955, the year after Chet Baker Sings introduced his unembellished, flat vocal stylings to the world. That same year Hollywood cast him in a B-movie war film, Hell’s Horizon, that might have made him a star had his heavy heroin habit not made that an impossibility. Five years later, he appeared as Chet l’americano in Howlers of the Dock, an early, little-known film by director Lucio Fulci who later gained fame with two giallo genre classics, including A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin.

The new Canadian film by Robert Budreau, Born To Be Blue, is a reimagining of Baker’s life starring Ethan Hawke. It juxtaposes black and white film images from a fictional biopic film-within-the-film starring Baker (sparked by the famous William Claxton mid-50s photographs of him that evoked James Dean), with a factually loose narrative history of the trumpeter’s life from 1966 to 1973, when he was relearning his embouchure and struggling to regain his trumpet-playing chops after losing his teeth in a beating related to his drug habit.

Ethan Hawke

Hawke brilliantly captures Baker’s spirit in a convincing portrait of a drug-addled, music-loving womanizer. He’s believable singing “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” a cappella in a bowling alley and covers the iconic “My Funny Valentine” in the studio respectably, his voice lower than Baker’s but just as naked, if not unblemished. Equally essential, however, is Toronto’s Kevin Turcotte, whose uncanny trumpet on the soundtrack makes Hawke’s portrayal believable. The versatile Turcotte also supplies the sound for Gillespie’s and Davis’ horns, in brief cameos in two Birdland scenes.

Pianist David Braid, who arranged much of the extensive music track and even wrote a tune inspired by “Cherokee” and “Salt Peanuts,” leads a solid quartet with Turcotte, bassist Steve Wallace and drummer Terry Clarke. The music in the film is far more reality-based than the plot.

Born To Be Blue pulls no punches with Baker’s love of drugs. “Being a junkie is nobody’s fault,” he says early on. “It makes me happy; I love to get high.”

“Time gets wider, not just longer, and I can get inside every note,” Baker says later, about the effect of heroin on his music making. “Playing on methadone’s like wearing a condom.”

A visit to his parents in Yale, Oklahoma reveals the sourness of Baker’s relationship with his father (Stephen McHattie -- who once played Baker himself in Budreau’s short film The Deaths of Chet Baker -- in a searing cameo). Carmen Ejogo (Baker’s wife in the film-within-the-film) stands in sympathetically for Baker’s many wives and girlfriends. An amiable seducer, Baker used women for self-gratification and as drug procurers. Simply put, he was a junkie who loved to make music, as Born To Be Blue, to its credit, makes clear.

Born To Be Blue is currently onscreen at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Sachal Jazz Ensemble and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra CREDIT Frank Stewart

Najaf Ali and his father, Rafiq Ahmed, are drummers in Lahore, for a thousand years the centre of music in Pakistan.  Like many musicians there, Najaf learned to play in childhood under the tutelage of his father. A coup by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1977 led to the installation of Sharia law and the banning of music throughout the country. A rich musical tradition was suddenly cut off from its audience. By the time the restrictions had eased, there was a serious disconnect with the general population and much of the younger generation knew nothing of the music at all.

In 2004, Izzat Majeed founded Sachal Studios to provide a place for traditional music in a nation that had rejected its musical roots. After convincing a number of master musicians to pick up their instruments again, some classical and folk recordings were released with little fanfare. But it was an experimental album fusing jazz and South Asian instruments brought them worldwide acclaim. Their version of Dave Brubeck’s classic, Take Five, rode the Internet all the way to Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. And Brubeck himself said: “This is the most interesting recording of Take Five that I’ve ever heard.” (Majeed had fallen for jazz as a schoolboy when he heard Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck live in Lahore as part of the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Ambassadors program.)

Sachal Jazz Ensemble guitarist Asad Ali

Song of Lahore, the new documentary co-directed by Andy Schocken and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (who conceived it), begins smartly by focusing on the family connections among the members of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble (SJE), tracing their love of music and its roots while contextualizing their plight within the political and social history of Pakistan. Obaid-Chinoy, a double Oscar winner in the Short Documentary Film category -- including this year’s film about honour killings, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness -- is a socially conscious filmmaker with a journalistic background, who credits her time in Toronto from 2004 to 2015 with honing her craft.

Midway through this straightforward and informative documentary, Song of Lahore takes flight (literally and figuratively) when the SJE is invited by Marsalis to join him and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JALCO) for a concert in New York City. The energy and freedom of Manhattan liberate the visitors but it’s during the rehearsals for the concert that the real charm of the film takes hold.

The implacable rhythmic foundation of the three drummers is a natural fit with Marsalis’ horn-heavy orchestra (“You start,” Marsalis says to them. “We need you to set the groove up.”).  There is some drama: East and West must find avenues of communication; a misfiring sitar player is replaced by a local New Yorker. But the climactic footage of Take Five, Jelly Roll Morton’s New Orleans Blues and Ellington’s Limbo Jazz the next evening in the concert elevate the film to a higher plane. Baqar Abbas’ flute -- we saw him early in the film carving out a new instrument by hand and drilling it with perfectly placed holes -- can more than hold its own in a thrilling dialogue with JALCO’s flutist. Ballu Khan’s breathtaking tabla solos in New Orleans Blues are a standout. “When people are soulful and want to come together, then they do,” Marsalis says.

Rafiq Ahmed Bauji. Marsalis smiles as he repeats the name, delighting in its musicality. The musicality of Rafiq Ahmed’s dhol playing would later delight the Lincoln Center audience; as would Najat Ali’s naal.

Song of Lahore plays at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema March 4 to 10.

Serpent-Banner.jpgTheodor Koch-Grünberg, his guide, Manduca, and the shaman, Karamakate

 

An exotic, compelling journey up the headwaters of the Amazon with echoes of Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now, the third film by Colombian director Ciro Guerra, Embrace of the Serpent, one of the nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, has opened at TIFF Bell Lightbox just in time for the upcoming Academy Awards.

Based on two real-life scientific expeditions, 30 years apart, in the first half of the 20th century, this gorgeous splash of black and white cinematography is a searing indictment of colonialism and the Catholic Church, whose priests enslaved Indigenous children orphaned as collateral damage of the ravenous greed of the Colombian rubber barons.

So authentic is the look of the film it’s as if we’re watching found footage beautifully restored.

The young Karamakate

The two river journeys cover the same territory and Guerra deftly cuts back and forth between them. The film was inspired by the real-life journals of two explorers (the German,Theodor Koch-Grünberg, and the American, Richard Evans Schultes) who travelled through the Colombian Amazon in search of the yakruna, a rare, sacred plant with psychedelic and curative powers that grows on rubber trees. Each was guided by the same Amazonian tribesman, Karamakate, and it is his perspective which steers our perceptions; the American followed the German’s trail via notebooks he had kept that were published after his death. Not to be outdone, the filmmaker was looking for the soul of the Amazon itself. It’s no understatement to say that he found some of its shards.

The stunning photography (can I repeat myself enough?) is underscored by the film’s sound design which uses natural sounds of water, birds, insects and the force of the river itself to buttress the images. An ambient drone or ominous synthesizer guides our senses from time to time; the occasional notes of traditional flute music add to the authenticity of the setting. The American’s prized possession is a phonograph on which he listens incongruously to Haydn’s Creation. Even Karamakate, now aged and disconnected from his shamanistic powers, finds it curiously inoffensive.

The older Karamakate and Richard Evans Schultes

At the film’s climax, the scientist’s  ingestion of the yakruna momentarily turns the black and white images to colour and the soundtrack explodes with a musical starburst.

Embrace of the Serpent is a road trip on water you’ll be glad to have taken, a spellbinding journey that doubles as forensic anthropology with a subtle, non-didactic ecological message.

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