Thumbs Partly Down, Thumbs Way Up: Reviews Of Sing Street And Miles Ahead

Movies, movies, movies. They make good fodder for opinions. I never knew I had so many opinions about movies, and about all kinds of things for that matter, till I started writing this blog. Now I can’t shut myself up. When I retire from blogging I plan to go back to my former ways, which involved a vow of near-silence and rigorous mental training to keep opinions at an unmeasurably low level. For now, though, here we go again:

My wife Sandy and I caught two movies, their themes heavily musical, in suburban Philadelphia on a recent weekend. First we saw Sing Street. The next day it was Miles Ahead. Sing Street came with a three and a half star rating from The Philadelphia Inquirer. I took a look at The Inquirer’s 50-word summary of the movie and at some words of praise quoted in the film’s newspaper advertisement, and I was sold. I mean, here was a story, set in 1985, about an Irish lad infatuated with the idea of forming a rock and roll band, and also infatuated with a girl. Undoubtedly it would be a charmer. Count me in.

Turns out that Sing Street ain’t da bomb. Very surprising, since John Carney, its director and author, previously turned out way solid fare with two music-infused films, both of which he also wrote and directed. Is there anybody who didn’t like Once, the lower-than-low budget love story from 2007 that brought the world to tears with dazzlingly tender songs such as Falling Slowly? And what was there to dislike about Carney’s 2013 opus Begin Again? It starred Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, and it did nothing but snap, crackle and pop.

Now, Sing Street isn’t the worst. It’s watchable. It’s pleasant. But halfway through I began scratching my head, wondering if I was viewing the same flick that the Inquirer’s reviewer had fawned over. Admittedly, on paper the set-up seems good: Fifteen-year-old Conor, a nice, directionless kid, is living in Dublin with his sister and older brother and squabbling parents. He is introduced to emotive, big hair 1980s rock and roll (The Cure, Duran Duran) by his slacker brother. Then he meets a cute 16-year-old girl who knocks his socks off, and decides to become a musician and put together a rock band to impress said girl. Conor, natch, will be the band’s big-haired lead singer. So, what’s my gripe? In two words, sloppy screenplay.

Example number one: This is a movie partly about a boy and his band, yet only one of Conor’s four bandmates gets to do much yapping. Whatever personalities the three others possess are pretty invisible. Collectively those three lads recite maybe 60 words during the movie.

Number two: Family-wise, the movie delves only into Conor’s relationship, which is strong, with big brother Jack. But Conor seems to get along pretty nicely with the other family members. Which is why I was lost at sea when Conor, permanently leaving the parental household near the end of the film, directs moving words toward his mother but not a syllable toward good ol’ Dad or Sis.

Miles_Ahead_Poster UK_Quad-e1459359065654
That’s enough examples. Hey, sometimes you lose. But sometimes you win, and I can’t say enough good things about Miles Ahead. This is a most unorthodox and highly creative take on Miles Davis, the superb jazz musician whose aura blanketed the globe for over 40 years. Miles was a force musically and sartorially, and set the standard, if you can call it that, for hipster cool. He was a singular talent, a complicated guy, multisided. Not everybody he knew necessarily saw the same sides. And he was a prolific and hardworking musician, recording many dozens of albums as a leader, starting in 1951. His final studio sessions took place in 1991, the year he died at age 65.

A strange thing happened, though, during the second half of Miles’ career. Due to health problems and drug addictions and who-knows-what-else, he went into near-seclusion in 1975, holing himself up in his Upper West Side townhouse in Manhattan. And for the next several years apparently he didn’t do much of anything worth noting. Eventually he felt the urge to make new music, and returned to the recording studio in 1980. The next year he began to tour again. But what was life like for Miles during his period of withdrawal from public life? What was going on inside his head? Those are the questions that Miles Ahead grabs hold of. Fantasizing some answers, the movie takes the audience on a wild ride.

Miles Ahead is Don Cheadle’s baby. He plays Miles in the movie. He looks a lot like him, nails the raspy voice, and constructs a cinematic Miles so natural and believable I have a feeling that he comes damn close to the real thing’s personality. Not only that, Cheadle directed the movie — to me, flawlessly — and co-wrote the screenplay. Yeah, you bet this guy is talented.

Frances Taylor Davis is on the covers of these two Miles albums.
Frances Taylor Davis is on the covers of these two Miles albums.

During his self-imposed confinement, was music ever far from Miles’ mind? Probably not, though he had hit a huge creative roadblock. The movie opens in 1979 or so, in Miles’ spacious and disheveled home, where he has yet to come out of his lengthy funk. And where he dwells on the past, on the music he had made. In flashback scenes throughout the film, covering the late 1950s through about 1966, we see Miles at work. And in love. That was a fecund musical period for Miles, and during it he was head over heels for Frances Taylor, a professional dancer who married (and divorced) him and helped inspire him. Seamlessly blended with the past is an invented scenario in which 1979’s Miles becomes involved in a loopy caper that has some good results: It gets him out of his house and ultimately leads him to reclaim his misplaced musical mojo. His semi-trusted companion in the adventure is a music journalist (done just right by Ewan McGregor) who has edges as flinty and unpredictable as Miles himself. And that is why Miles comes to like him.

I won’t say more about the plot. What I’m wondering, though, is if a viewer needs to be a Miles Davis fan to enjoy this movie. Me, I’m a big fan. But I think I’d have loved the movie even if I weren’t. It seems so real. It breathes like Miles Davis trumpet solos . . . on the trumpet, Miles might dartingly probe the outer planets of the solar system, or might ruminate bittersweetly. And it’s the opposite of the standard biopic in more ways than its fantastical caper. After all, it entirely skips about 55 years of Miles’ life. If Miles, a forward thinker, were alive to view the flick, no doubt he’d say something like this to Don Cheadle: “Man, I don’t know how you came up with this crazy plot, but it slays me. Motherf**ker, that’s me up there on the screen.”

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments, or about sharing this article with others)

I Never Met Thelonious Monk, But . . .

The front cover of the author's copy of Criss-Cross.
The front cover of the author’s copy of Criss-Cross.

I loved Thelonious Monk’s music from the first time I heard it, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. The year was 1964, maybe ’65. I was a high school senior entranced by rock and roll, R & B, some folk music, and by standards singers such as Sinatra and Bennett. But not by jazz, which was foreign territory to me at that time. My high school buddy Dave had just obtained his New York State driver’s license and one day informed me that he was going to take a ride to a local Sam Goody’s, a popular record store chain that sadly is no longer with us. For whatever reason, I didn’t accompany him. Dave asked me if I wanted anything from Goody’s. I must have been feeling adventurous because I requested a jazz album. Any jazz album would do, since I didn’t know one from another. The record that Dave a day or two later placed in my hands was Criss-Cross, Monk’s 1963 release. I doubt if I had ever heard of Monk before, though he was one of the most famous jazz pianists in the world. And I doubt if Dave knew much about him either. How, then, had Dave come to select this album, which to this day I consider to be magnificent? I don’t know. Dave possessed powerful intuitive talents, still does, and it seems that choosing great music from out of the blue was one of them. On the other hand, maybe he just liked the album’s cover. It is très cool.

I listened to jazz in small amounts over the next few years and in 1969 began to become the jazzhead that I am when I started heavily to inhale the outpourings of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and an ocean of others. And Thelonious Monk too, of course. Monk is one of my all-time favorites.

There’s something peaceful about Monk’s playing, even on the upbeat numbers. Something mesmerizing. Something irresistible in the way he’d offer the unexpected note, the tantalizing trill. Monk had an instantly recognizable sound on the piano, an intriguingly off-center approach. He didn’t play overly fast, just fast enough, and he put his heart and soul on display. He didn’t compose a lot of tunes (73 is the official count), but the unadorned and undeniable beauty of many of his compositions have connected with millions of listeners and with his peers. During the 1980s and ’90s it seemed that every month brought forth a new Monk tribute album. Even now, many jazz albums include one or two Monk works. Great compositions such as ‘Round Midnight, In Walked Bud, Ruby My Dear, Hackensack. Monk died in 1982, and remains a giant.

Thelonious Monk was someone I wish I had met and talked to, though I gather he wasn’t a man of many words, at least at times. I suspect that his song titles indicate this. Fifty of the 73 are either one or two words in length. Still, how fine would it have been to ask Thelonious Monk some questions: Have your piano practice habits changed over the years? Which of your songs mean the most to you? Do you ever listen to Top 40 radio? As a New Yorker, whom do you like best, the Yankees or the Mets?

But I never met Monk. In the 1960s and ’70s, however, three people I knew had up-close Monk experiences, which as a Monk fan I always have looked upon fondly. And in a sense have made my own. The earliest involved one of my high school friends, a young lady. We had graduated in 1965, and soon after that she and her family moved from Long Island to an apartment building in Manhattan near Lincoln Center. Amazingly, this was the building in which Thelonious Monk and his family resided, and had for years. More amazingly, my friend and her family occupied an apartment either directly above or below the Monk pad, I’m not sure which. I recall my classmate telling me, not long after our high school careers ended, that she often would hear Monk playing the piano, which, to say the least, was incredible to me. And enviable.

Back cover of the author's copy of Criss-Cross.
The back cover of the author’s copy of Criss-Cross.

The second occasion involved my friend Dave, who got my Monk ball rolling, with Criss-Cross, in the first place. He once had a brief encounter with the man. Dave thinks the meeting took place in 1966 or ’67. The location was a New York City subway car on which Dave spotted somebody who looked awfully familiar. This somebody was clothed in what Dave described to me as pajamas. Pajamas? Sure, why not? Intrepid soul that Dave was and is, he walked over and asked “Are you Thelonious Monk?” “Yeah, I’m the Monk,” came the reply. End of conversation.

The third Monk event was the topper. My mother was part of it, and I was there when it happened. The month was March, the year was 1976. WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station that programmed jazz in its classic and far-out varieties, was holding a Thelonious Monk marathon, playing his recordings nonstop over a multiday period. I imagine that the station’s intense tribute was timed to coincide with a concert by Monk and his band that same month at Carnegie Hall. My mother was a devoted jazz fan and WKCR listener because her son (my brother) Richard was in attendance at Columbia and was a WKCR jazz DJ. As such, he was on the air for portions of the Monk fest. But not on the evening in question, during which I sat with my mother in the kitchen of her Long Island home as the Monk celebration emanated from a small radio on a counter between the sink and the stove. Concerned about others as she always was, she said something like “I wonder if Thelonious Monk knows what KCR is doing.”

She went to the telephone and dialed 411, the number for directory assistance. Did Monk have a listed number? Somewhat surprisingly, he did. My mother called. Someone on the other end picked up. “Is this Mr. Monk?” she asked. “Yes,” was the reply. “Hello,” my mother said. “I wanted to ask if you know that WKCR is playing all of your music. It’s a wonderful tribute.” “Yes, thank you,” replied Thelonious Monk. My mother probably then complimented Monk on his talents, and Monk probably said “thank you” again. And that was that. I sat there semi-stunned. My mother, to my recollection, had never done anything like this before. She keenly followed the world of celebrities, but always from afar. Of all the stars that she admired, from Mary Tyler Moore to Lena Horne to Paul Newman, I never would have guessed that her one personal contact would be with a jazz pianist.

I was a mere bystander to my mother’s bold move. I, however, had one engaging and in-person Monk experience of my own. This occurred on March 26, 1976 from a balcony seat  at Thelonious’ aforementioned concert at Carnegie Hall. Sitting next to me were my brother Richie and his wife-to-be, Sara. I can’t recall if the performance took place just before or after my mother’s conversation with Monk. Likely, after. Monk didn’t play often in public those days, so the Carnegie gig was a highly anticipated event. In fact, two appearances in July of that year would be his last ever. He was on stage with four musicians, including his son T.S. Monk on drums. Thelonious said little, maybe nothing, to the audience. What mattered was his playing, and he was in superb form. Strong, poignant, totally on the money. His fingers did the talking.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

(If you enjoyed this article, then please don’t be shy about sharing it)