4 posts categorized "Jazz"

December 10, 2016


La La Land“La La Land” is a bore. Still, the movie has two very good things going for it, namely Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. This duo’s legendary onscreen chemistry (see “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”) reaches emotional highs and lows in counterpoint to a musical fantasy that almost brings home the bacon.

Fear not musical-film-haters, the genre isn’t about to explode with “La La Land” copycats. Gosling and Stone might be great together, but this movie leaves much to be desired. Although the film makes pained efforts to pretend it has the slightest thing to do with Jazz, the soundtrack is more akin to the music you'd find playing under a cartoon Cinderella.

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You know you’re in trouble from its mad-mad-world opening song and dance centerpiece, which occurs around and on top of cars stuck in a Los Angeles freeway traffic jam. Squeeze the millennial cheese please. It feels like a Dr. Pepper television commercial from the early ‘80s. The craned-camera sequence has colorfully dressed dancers doing backflips from cars in an attempt to cram as much hoop-la as possible onto the screen. The gaudy 10-minute sequence is more Baz Luhrmann than Bob Fosse. Easily pleased audiences will be sated but this is music video dross. 


The overblown set piece values presentation over representation in a musical that tries too hard and still doesn't earn its stripes. The cheesy champaign-pouring montage looks like it was cut together from B-roll. 

Jazz prodigy boy meets young actress who hates jazz. Red flag. Boy should know better than take up with a Jazz-hater; it will never work out. Besides, Gosling's Sebastian is too meephy for his own good. 

Stone’s actress chic Mia sits in her car, running lines for the movie audition she’s on her way to. Gosling’s brooding jazz pianist Sebastian honks at her to get moving. Fear not, they won’t be enemy rivals long.

Cut to Emma Stone’s struggling Mia going on endless tryouts. She does great acting work — as evidenced in audition bits that show off Stone's acting chops,— but she still doesn’t get any gigs. It’s tough out there, even in writer-director Damien Chazelle’s updated '50s styled L.A. fantasyland. George Lucas's "American Graffiti" would make a natural double-feature choice to go along with this film's fascination with primary colors and squeaky clean surfaces.

Sebastian can’t hold down a regular solo piano gig because he chooses to work at venues that don’t allow him to play the improvisational jazz that excites him. Sebastian thrives on rejection.

Chazelle gives an inside nod to his last film “Whiplash” by casting J.K. Simmons as the disapproving owner of the restaurant that (re) hires and (promptly) fires Sebastian for his wandering fingers on the 88s. The gratuitous casting choice does the movie no favors. Sacha Baron Cohen would have been a better choice to bring some resonance to the part.


For all of the colorful costume changes and tightly choreographed dance sequences between Stone and Gosling, “La La Land” meanders when it should glide, and rings with mood-killing alarms that interrupt more than one scene.

“La La Land” is long way from “West Side Story” or “Cabaret” — two great (determinedly tragic) musicals that this film tries to emulate. Chazelle reneges on fulfilling the film’s snappy opening tone of screwball romance. He zigs after establishing he wants to zag. This is this film's fatal flaw. Instead of bookending the joy foreshadowed in its virtuosic opening, the movie ends on a minor chord nostalgia for things to come. Yuck. It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. 

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Most egregious are two distinct episode involving actual alarms (one is a smoke alarm) that break this film apart. For a filmmaker ostensibly in love with music, these jarring aural events fly in the face of responsible moviemaking. Musicians are notorious for having sensitive ears, and any that I know — myself included — say that these abrasive segments of violent soundscape manipulation are beyond the pale. But don't take my word for it; you'll know what I mean when you hear them. Rather than coming out of this musical humming a tune — the Broadway litmus test for what constitutes a good musical — you will only be thinking of these sustained sonic assaults aimed right at the audience.

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Damien Chazelle wants to bring Jazz back into America’s cultural conversation – and for that I commend him — but he unintentionally cheapens the idea with saccharine sentimentality that he mutes with a downbeat ending. Any Jazz musician or fan knows that be-bop’s intrinsic element of syncopation is all about the upbeats. "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." La La Land doesn't swing. "Hustle and Flow" is a much better musical. 


Rated PG-13. 128 mins.

2 Stars


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April 04, 2016



Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

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Get cool rewards when you click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon. Thanks a lot pal! Your generosity keeps the reviews coming!

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BLUEEthan Hawke certainly has the acting chops to play the legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. What's more, Hawke resembles Chet in middle age before the ravages of heroin devastated his iconic good looks. But there’s more to Hawke’s portrayal of Chet Baker than keen acting skills and physical resemblance; demons. The Gen X survivor who caught fire in 1994 with “Reality Bites” has battled plenty of personal sprites, all the while testing the limits of his talents by writing (plays, novels and screenplays), directing, and acting. Always acting. His work here represents his finest performance to date.

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“Hello fear. Hello death. Fuck you.” Hawke’s Baker repeats the lines being fed to him by the scantily clad actress playing a one-night stand in a film-within-the-film about his life. She uses a tourniquet to tie his arm off before giving him his first shot of heroin. He’s a wounded child seeking sex, approval, escape, and love in equal parts.

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Chet’s personal life comes barging though the hotel room door in the guise of his jealous girlfriend Jane (Carmen Ejogo). The narrative telescope compresses as black and white turns to color. We’re on a film set in 1966 Hollywood where Chet tries his hand at playing himself for a film director who rescued him from a filthy Italian jail where he was due to spend the next couple of years. So it is that writer/director Robert Budreau submerges his audience into the appropriately cold narrative waters of Chet Baker’s mid-life story.


The role of Chet Baker’s heroin addiction in ruling, and ruining, his life is fully expressed when he tells Jane that he’s “only hurting himself.” Hawke downplays the self-delusion in the statement. Passive aggression is just another defense mechanism in Baker’s arsenal of survival tricks.

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When angry drug dealers pistol-whip Chet in the mouth, the vicious attack comes with the cruel soubriquet, “no more jazz motherfucker.” Relearning to play the horn with dentures means creating three placements of embrasure — left, right, and center. As painful as it is watching Baker bleeding from the mouth while attempting to play, Hawke’s performance hooks us.

Where Don Cheadle’s concurrently running Miles Davis filmic love letter “Miles Ahead” is an ambitious embrace of the great jazz trumpeter’s music, humor, and imagination, “Born to be Blue” is an impressionistic chamber piece made up of composite elements from Baker’s life.

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Linear facts don’t matter. Both films eschew the traditional biopic formula, and in so doing achieve a sublime dramatic effect of floating through the air that both trumpet players breathed. Forget about dueling super-heroes, “Born to be Blue” and “Miles Ahead” are the real McCoy to see phenomenally gifted men sparring for supremacy on their chosen field of battle. The blood and spit they spill is in the service of a transcendent musical beauty that no comic book creation can imagine.

Rated R. 97 mins.

4 Stars

Cozy Cole

Cole Smithey on Patreon

October 10, 2015


Miles Don Cheadle’s independently produced labor of love is an exquisitely polished love letter to the iconic genius who revolutionized music five times over during the 20th century. This is a big movie with Miles Davis’s music and mind, front and center. Narrative information seeps from every pore of this appropriately larger-than-life film.  

Clever filmic storytelling devices filter historical fact with apocryphal cinematic flourishes to get at Miles Davis's charismatic personality. The filmmakers adopt a daring and original approach that works like a charm. As Don Cheadle said at the New York Film Festival press screening, this is the kind of movie Miles would have wanted to act in. One viewing isn’t anywhere near enough to drink in all that this great movie has to offer. This film has multiple Oscar nominations written all over it even if the powers that be will make sure no such thing ever occurs. Nonetheless, film-lovers will seek this motherfucker out. 

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Cheadle directs himself with attention to the story’s overarching tonal and rhythmic ebbs of musical influence. A lot of thought and attention went into every note that the audience hears.

We see Miles Davis when we see Cheadle playing the trumpet. His transformation is absolute. The effect is hypnotizing. It would be selling the veteran actor short to say that he was clearly born to play Miles Davis if only for his similarly structured visage of Davis's handsome and athletic bearing. There is so much more to Don Cheadle's dramatized incarnation of a legend that you should stop reading this review and just get down with the movie.

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The diligent Cheadle walked many psychological and physical miles in Davis's ubiquitous shoes to arrive at the incredibly high level of performance that he gives here. I'd give him the Best Actor Oscar right this minute. It simply doesn't get any better than this. Dustin Hoffman in "Lenny"? Yep, this movie does all that and more. "Pollock"? Yes, Cheadle shows off real horn chops just as Ed Harris threw real paint as Jackson Pollock. And, still this movie does so much more than either of those estimable examples of the biopic genre achieves. It is no small feat to reinvent the biopic genre. Tarantino might talk shit about biopics, but I bet he'd love this one. Witness Aaron Sorkin's failed attempt at the same goal with "Steve Jobs," a movie that comes nowhere near the level of narrative sophistication that "Miles Ahead" flicks, punches, and grooves on like nobody's business.  

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When asked at a New York Film Festival premiere screening how he juggled so many tasks while making the picture, Mr. Cheadle replied, “Drugs.” Watching his wonderfully inspired portrayal of Miles Davis is like taking an emotionally charged musical journey drug for the audience. It doesn't hurt that Mile's former bandmate Herbie Hancock oversaw the film's musical aspects with the assistance of veteran composer Robert Glasper

Don Cheadle Directing Miles Ahead
Cheadle and his fellow screenwriters break the typical biopic cradle-to-grave format with an approach compatible to the way Miles Davis's actively creative mind worked. Sturdily constructed subplots weave between two days during Miles’s ‘70s era retirement from music, and earlier periods related to his time with Frances Davis (1958 – 1968), the woman featured on the cover of Davis’s 1961 album “Someday My Prince Will Come.” A hot chemistry boils between Cheadle and the impossibly beautiful actress who plays Frances with an elegant poise and feminine power that is out of this world. Muse? You bet.

The “Sketches of Spain” recording sessions make for a cool peek at Miles directing his band with the assistance of Gill Evans (Jeffrey Grover). We are entranced by Cheadle’s elegant command of his characterization.

“Miles Ahead” has a floating sense of Miles Davis’s human essence hovering everywhere you look. Everything works. Especially enjoyable is Cheadle’s pitch-perfect delivery of Miles’s wonderfully laconic sense of humor, as expressed though his famously rasp of a voice. (Miles blew out his vocal chords when he yelled while recovering from polyp surgery). Hilarious zingers fly left and right. The picture is funnier than most Hollywood comedies.

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It goes on. The artistic cinematic ingenuity on display here is staggering. The film’s lighting and production designs are lush like you can’t believe. Naturally, the film’s editing (courtesy of John Axelrad and Kayla Emter) is perfect down to the millisecond. These filmmakers clearly took their time. You never doubt the shifting tempos that map out the thickly layered storyline.

Although the film doesn't open until April, 2016, it is being given a limited release qualifying run, in order for it to be considered for the 2016 Oscars. 

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As the only film at the 53rd New York Film Festival to feature black actors, “Miles Ahead” made a powerful statement that transcends the music of Miles Davis as an ongoing social and cultural connector. Don Cheadle makes a point to include a scene where Miles tells a reporter not to call his music “Jazz.” “Call it social music,” Miles says. Cool man. Dig it, 'cause if you can't dig this, you can't dig nothin'.

Rated R. 100 mins. 

5 Stars


Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

This ad-free website is dedicated to Agnès Varda and to Luis Buñuel.

Get cool rewards when you click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon. Thanks a lot pal! Every bit helps keep the reviews coming.

Cole Smithey on Patreon

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