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In Defense Of Jazz Biopics: Melodramas And Morality Tales, Set To Music


This is FRESH AIR. On cable this month, Turner Classic Movies is presenting a series of movies with jazz connections. As it happens, our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a new book about movies that tell jazz stories. Here's his defense of a much maligned film genre - the jazz biopic, screened biographies of jazz musicians.


STEVE ALLEN: (As Benny Goodman) All right. Let's get to work.

SHEP MENKEN: (As Harry Goodman) I got only one suggestion to make, Benny.

ALLEN: (As Benny Goodman) Mmm hmm?

MENKEN: (As Harry Goodman) If you're going to be a bandleader, you ought to change your name.

ALLEN: (As Benny Goodman) Why?

MENKEN: (As Harry Goodman) Who's gonna remember a name like Benny Goodman?

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: A moment from the 1956 "Benny Goodman Story." He kept the name.

Many jazz fans hate jazz biopics, biographical movies, and with good reason. Performers' lives get heavily compressed and fictionalized, and musicians who appear as themselves are made to say and do silly things.

Personally, I like biopics, recognizing they're biographical fictions not documentaries. I like seeing what true stuff gets in or gets left out, what gets invented when the true story would do and how messy lives get squeezed into stock story formulas. And yet, it's surprising how much most biopics get right, if only because facts can be squeezed into dialogue when the action veers off course.

In "The Benny Goodman Story," his booking agent's terse updates keep us apprised of the bandleader's early breakthroughs.


HY AVERBACK: (As Willard Alexander) They talk about busy fellows. You're going to be one, Benny. Deal is closed for the Congress Hotel. It looks like you're booked solid with one-night stands all the way from here to Chicago.

DONNA REED: (as Alice Hammond) How about New York?

AVERBACK: (As Willard Alexander) Oh, there's some interest there, too.

WHITEHEAD: And the more ambitious biopics invented scenes aimed to reveal some higher truth. In 2016's "Born To Be Blue," after a beatdown leaves Chet Baker unable to play trumpet, Ethan Hawkes as Chet retreats to his parents' farm in Oklahoma to recuperate in coldly beautiful wintertime. This poetic interlude speaks to Chet Baker's Oklahoma roots. But his parents had left there when he was 10. They'd been living in Redondo Beach. Some biopics go big, as the director and star of another one from 2016 put it.


DON CHEADLE: (As Miles Davis) If you're going to tell a story, come with some attitude, man. Don't - you know, don't be all corny with this [expletive].

WHITEHEAD: That's Don Cheadle channeling Miles Davis in declaring his intentions as the director of "Miles Ahead." Many miles fans hated that biopic for focusing on the trumpeter's druggy, reclusive years of the 1970s. But there are extended flashbacks to his earlier prime, when natty Miles plays ballads as love letters to his woman. The split narrative underscores the sweet and sour sides of his personality. Radical shifts in tone, plus a frame story and a final scene where Cheadle's Miles jams with a pan-generational dream band all speak to Miles Davis's compulsion to keep reinventing himself.


WHITEHEAD: Most jazz biopics give you a sense of the artist's music via historical recordings or newly recorded solos by a living subject or through skillful mimicry. One reason I don't like "Lady Sings The Blues" is Diana Ross barely gives you a clue what the real Billie Holiday sounded like. Even in the ridiculous Danny Kaye biopic of cornettist Red Nichols, "The Five Pennies," you hear the real Nichols when the character picks up the horn. And the real Red gets to trade licks with guest star Louis Armstrong.


WHITEHEAD: In "The Five Pennies" disciplined studio pro Red Nichols turns into leering, compulsive entertainer Danny Kaye. It's not the only '50s biopic where the subject morphs into the actor. In "St. Louis Blues," staid composer W.C. Handy becomes a suave singing pianist very like star Nat King Cole. In "The Gene Krupa Story," the drummer smokes pot, has trouble dealing with early success and makes the gossip columns with his self-indulgent antics, like the film's star, Sal Mineo.


SAL MINEO: (As Gene Krupa) That stuff not only threw my timing off, but it made my sticks kind of slippery and - all right. So if there's a rap for having messed with this stuff once, I guess I've got it coming to me. But those reefers were not mine.

WHITEHEAD: Starting in the 1980s with "Bird," about Charlie Parker, jazz biopics got more loose and creative, scrambling chronological order. We also start seeing jazz tales with unreliable narrators. The title of a 1991 biopic is a tell, "Bix: An Interpretation Of A Legend." The mostly kind of accurate story of doomed cornettist Bix Beiderbecke is told in flashback by violinist Joe Venuti. In the real world, Venuti was a notorious practical joker, so the made-up stuff might all be his invention, leaving the filmmakers with clean hands.

In 2019's "Bolden," jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden wastes away in a mental hospital, trying to piece together his long-ago career and inserting fanciful details, just as other folks spread tall tales about the real Buddy. "Bolden" freely mixes man and myth, like movies about, say, Wyatt Earp. In fact, classic Westerns make a good parallel with jazz biopics - melodramas and morality tales set in an imagined past where the facts are twisted as needed but with better music.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead's new book is called "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, as more cities open up, we talk with Dr. Michael Osterholm about where we are now in the pandemic and what to expect in this next phase. He's the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and author of "Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering from Mike Villers. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.