SXSW: Miles Davis, Chet Baker biopics put classic jazz in the spotlight

Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue
Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue IFC

While the Oscar-winning Whiplash was nominally about jazz, it was really a horror film with drum solos. It’s no wonder that one of the producers was Jason Blum, the guy behind The Purge and Paranormal Activity movies.

But it did feature some classic jazz, in such tracks as Caravan and Whiplash, a form of music not heard much on the big screen these days. That changes slightly this spring with the release of two biopics about trumpet players: Miles Ahead, directed by and starring Don Cheadle as Miles Davis; and Born to Be Blue, starring Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker and directed by Robert Budreau. Both are screening this week at South by Southwest.

They share not only similar subject matter also but time periods — an actor portraying an annoyed Davis shows up in Blue — as well as approach. Both are long-gestating labors of love that, instead of hewing close to biopic formula, play fast and loose with reality, much like an improvisatory take on a musical standard. Cheadle hangs Miles Ahead around a fictional interview with a Rolling Stone freelancer (played by Ewan McGregor) while the conceit in Born to Be Blue is the filming of a movie about Baker by producer Dino de Laurentiis.

Such a style might rankle purists, especially since McGregor shares so much of the spotlight with Cheadle. (The actor/director has been quoted as saying “having a white actor in this film turned out to actually be a financial imperative” to get the film made.) And Cheadle goes for more humor. But the anchors for the two movies are strong, convincing performances from Cheadle and Hawke that channel their characters’ mercurial and often-tortured genius.

Then, of course, there’s the music, ranging from Baker’s smoky soulfulness to Davis’ dizzying brilliance. That alone makes these worth seeing — and there are no angry music teachers screaming at anybody.

Attack of the teens: Two of the most talked-about performances coming out of SXSW are not from well-known stars but two kids too young to drive. Julian Dennison steals the show in the warmhearted New Zealand film Hunt for the Wilderpeople playing a 13-year-old on the lam with his cranky foster father, and Markees Christmas is wonderfully engaging in Morris from America as an African-American teenager going through the usual adolescent traumas while living in Germany with his soccer-coach dad. One of the best things about any film festival is making discoveries like this.

Cary Darling: 817-390-7571, @carydar