Actors need to hit all the right notes when playing real-life musicians. Here is a list of ten who delivered impressive performances portraying jazz artists on the big screen.
1 – Don Cheadle is Miles Davis in MILES AHEAD (2015)
Miles Ahead marked the directorial debut of actor Don Cheadle. He also plays the role of trumpeter Miles Davis in the film, which freely interprets the life and compositions of the musician, imagining what happened to him during his period of inactivity and drug addiction in the 1970’s. “The knowns about Miles’ life have always been the knowns,” Cheadle told Rolling Stone Magazine. “He never hid the good, the bad or the ugly of his life. But it was interesting to go through his autobiography and then check those same stories against other people’s testimonies … It’s all different, and it was in the space between those accounts that we thought: that’s where Miles is. Aim for that.”
2 – Ethan Hawke is Chet Baker in BORN TO BE BLUE (2015)
Chet Baker appeared in a number of films throughout his life. One of them, Bruce Weber’s quintessential 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost, partly informs Born to Be Blue, a biopic based on his life. Director Robert Budreau’s film focuses on Baker’s struggles with drug addiction and his romance with a woman as he works on his musical comeback in the late 60’s. The woman is a fictional composite of several of Baker’s women in real life. Ethan Hawke portrays the vocalist and composer. In an interview with Variety, Hawke stated that his role was one of the most challenging of his career: “You have an incredibly mysterious and enigmatic person that’s very difficult to make sense out of. Then you have to try to capture somebody who has a unique relationship to music. And then there’s the music.”
3 – Forest Whitaker is Charlie Parker in BIRD (1988)
Acclaimed actor and director Clint Eastwood is also a huge fan of jazz. His tribute to the life and music of saxophonist Charlie Parker is constructed as a montage of scenes from the man’s life from his childhood in Kansas City through his early death at the age of 34. Much of Bird revolves around his only grounding relationships with his wife Chan Parker, fellow Bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie, and his influence in both drugs and music on trumpeter Red Rodney. Forest Whitaker’s performance as Parker earned him much critical acclaim and several awards, including the Best Actor award at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival in France and a Golden Globe nomination.
4 – Diana Ross is Billie Holiday in LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972)
Lady Sings the Blues is loosely based on Billie Holiday’s 1956 autobiography of the same name – which, by many accounts, was loosely based on her life. This Sidney J. Furie film stars singer Diana Ross as Lady Day and was nominated for five awards, including a nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Ross. A double-album of Ross’ recordings of Holiday songs from the film, also titled Lady Sings the Blues, was released that same year. It was hugely successful, peaking at #1 on the Billboard Hot 200 Album Charts.
5 – James Stewart is Glenn Miller in THE GLENN MILLER STORY (1954)
The Glenn Miller Story is, arguably, the best of a long line of Hollywood music biopics based on the lives of musicians made in the 50’s. It also marked the first non-Western genre collaboration between, director Anthony Mann and actor James Stewart, who worked together on eight films. Originally titled Moonlight Serenade, the film is based on the life of bandleader and trombonist Glenn Miller from his early days in the music business in 1929 to his 1944 death when the airplane he was flying in was lost over the English Channel during World War II. It also features cameos from many real-life jazzmen, including Louis Armstrong, Gener Krupa, and Barney Bigard. It was hugely successful at the time and was re-released in 1985 along with a stereo soundtrack.
5 – Nat “King” Cole is W.C. Handy in ST. LOUIS BLUES (1958)
Little-known director Allen Reisner shot this feature starring vocalist Nat “King” Cole as composer W.C. Handy. St. Louis Blues also features appearances by such other jazz and blues greats as Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, and Barney Bigard. It is loosely based on the life of Handy and its soundtrack contains more than ten of his songs. In conjunction with the film, Cole also recorded an album of Handy compositions, also titled St. Louis Blues, with music arrangements by Nelson Riddle. The album was more successful than the film, peaking at #18 on the Billboard album chart.
7 – Reda Kateb is Django Reinhardt in DJANGO (2017)
Reda Kateb plays arguably the most beloved European jazz musician: the innovator of gypsy jazz Django Reinhardt. Django, directed by Etienne Comar, focuses on the Romani guitarist’s flight from Nazi Germany occupied France and the threat of concentration camps in 1946. It opened the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival and, although Kateb spent a year learning guitar in preparation for the role, Reinhardt’s music is performed in it by the Rosenberg Trio. In a Screen Daily interview, Kateb admitted he was not familiar with Reinhardt beyond his classic songs before he started working on Django. “As I got to learn more about him,” he said, “I came to see the role as a big theatrical one capturing a romantic, colorful character who was also full of contradictions.”
8 – Sal Mineo is Gene Krupa in THE GENE KRUPA STORY (1959)
On the surface, The Gene Krupa Story, directed by Don Weis, looks like one of many Hollywood musical biopics of the 1950’s. It contains many conventions of the genre and has its fair share of historical inaccuracies. However, it stands out for a number of reasons. Actor Sal Mineo’s turn as the bandleader and drummer marked his first adult role. Krupa himself plays drums on the soundtrack and during the scenes in which Mineo is seen playing. Most surprising of all is the film’s honesty as it centers on Krupa’s rise to success and his corresponding use of marijuana. As TCM.com writes: “More fact than fiction, The Gene Krupa Story avoids sugarcoating Krupa’s life … Mineo’s portrayal of Krupa is so needy, egocentric, manic, and ruthlessly ambitious that you may find yourself rooting for his comeuppance, which he receives in spades, starting with a drug bust for marijuana.”
9 – Jamie Foxx is Ray Charles in RAY (2004)
Director Taylor Hackford had secured the rights to Ray Charles’ life story in 1987 but was unable to find a studio to finance the film. He finally decided to produce it independently and when Ray was released, as many observers have stated, it revitalized the music biopic genre that, for years, had been relegated to the small television screen. Actor Jamie Foxx excelled in the title role and received many awards for it, including the coveted Best Actor Oscar. He sang and played piano in all the scenes and even wore prosthetics that really made him go blind for up to fourteen hours a day during filming. Charles himself was consulted during production and was able to sit through the first edit of Ray before his death of liver failure on June 10, 2004.
10 – Dexter Gordon is Dale Turner in ROUND MIDNIGHT (1986)
French director Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight is many people’s idea of the quintessential jazz movie. Yet, as far as this list is concerned, it is an anomaly. The lead character of the film is a hybrid, based on the memoirs of Francis Paudras and the lives of several jazz musicians who worked the Parisian jazz scene during the 1950’s – especially saxophonist Lester Young and pianist Bud Powell. Nonetheless, if Dale Turner is a fictional jazzman, the man who plays him certainly is not. Saxophonist Dexter Gordon impressed and was critically lauded for his lead performance in the movie and became the first jazz musician to earn a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Herbie Hancock won his Oscar for his original score for Round Midnight and also has a minor role in the film, as do Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, and many others.