January 24, 2011

Miles Plays Miles

DingoDingo is a little Australian-French film released in 1991 that would probably be lost in obscurity except for one fact - it stars Miles Davis. In the first image of the film, we see John “Dingo” Anderson (played by Colin Friels) playing his trumpet in the Australian outback, which sets up the tension between his life in the middle of nowhere and his dreams of playing jazz. We then see a flashback to John’s childhood in 1969, when a plane carrying legendary trumpeter Billy Cross (played by Davis) lands on a nearby runway and he gets to hear an impromptu jazz concert. John is mesmerized by what he hears and, after he approaches Cross after the concert, Billy tells him to “look me up” if he ever gets to Paris.

Two-thirds of the film is then taken up with John’s current life, twenty years later. He scratches out an existence hunting wild dogs and taking odd jobs to support his wife and two daughters. John also plays the trumpet and leads a band - “Dingo and the Dusters” - that plays a mix of jazz, country, and blues. But Dingo is still not satisfied with his life and he still dreams of going to Paris and playing with his idol, Billy Cross. He has been periodically writing to Cross over the years and sending him tapes of the music he’s playing in Australia. His dissatisfaction with his current life builds - spurred by the visit of a childhood friend who has gone on to financial success in Perth and starts hitting on Dingo’s wife - and he uses money he’s been saving up to fly to Paris.

After initially having trouble locating Cross, and ending up in jail, Dingo finally meets his musical hero. He ends up staying at his house and playing at a small jazz club with Cross, who has essentially retired but is coaxed back on stage. Dingo is a hit and he returns to Australia knowing that he has the musical chops to make it if he wants to.

The story is a little too good to be believed - it's every jazz musician's aboriginal fantasy, to be acknowledged by a master, come true - and the strange mix of hardscrabble outback struggles and big city jazz dreams is jarring to say the least. The real interest is Davis, who basically is playing himself. His character, Billy Cross, is a reticent and world-weary recluse. But when he is on screen, you can’t take your eyes off of Davis. The atmospheric music - by Davis and Michel Legrand - is quite good throughout: more late 1950s Miles than what he was playing at the time the film was made. The playing in the climactic club scene shows that Miles still had it. (Dingo’s playing was overdubbed by trumpeter Chuck Findley, who has played with Buddy Rich’s band, among others.) Miles died the year the film was released.

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