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Trumpet Miming in Film: Mostly Jive

Trumpet Miming in Film: Mostly Jive
Steve Provizer By

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No surprise that filmmakers want to feature trumpet players in their films. After all, we are a complicated, sometimes volatile and, ahem, sexy cohort. Let's analyze how well filmmakers pull off the act of shooting a character playing the trumpet or cornet.
No surprise that filmmakers want to feature trumpet players in their films. After all, we are a complicated, sometimes volatile and, ahem, sexy cohort. I've written here about the odd character-illogical bent that movies show toward the species, but in this post, I'll restrict myself to analyzing how well filmmakers pull off the act of shooting a character playing the trumpet or cornet.

Let me note that, technically, no one is actually playing for the soundtrack while scenes are being shot. Music is almost never recorded live on a soundstage, but is recorded in an audio studio and mimed during the shoot (I did this myself as a member of a polka band in the as-yet unreleased Jack Black film The Polka King). That's the only way to be able to isolate any dialogue in the scene and it gives many more editing options. So, even if someone knows how to play, in a feature film, they always have to try and synch with pre-existing audio.

Let's start with the one scene I know of featuring a woman. In The Jerk, Bernadette Peters does an excellent miming job. Before she plays, she lightly licks her lip in a very natural way. Then, she actually fingers the right notes on the valves for a melody in the trumpet key of A flat. Her embouchure is a little too loosy-goosy and the dubbing is very close, but not exact. She looks like an example of someone who is comfortable with the trumpet and maybe even knows how to play, but is not playing it here.

Jack Lord of Hawaii Five-0 fame is in Play It Glissando, an episode of Route 66. Just from the awkwardness of the title (you can play _a_glissando, but you can't play _it_glissando), you can see the writers are trying to get hip but can't quite get there. I find that a lot in Route 66, but I love them for trying. Lord is cast in the Chet Baker mold and has the basic look right, but, as in most miming attempts, he's trying too hard to look the tortured soul. He's too stressed, too tense. Also, there's no variation in his chops; no indication that he's actually playing high or low, loud or soft. The director is smart enough to have only one shot where you can see him fiddling with the valves and that's a quick long shot.

Whether or not Richard Gere in Cotton Club plays the cornet himself is a subject of online debate. The most convincing story I read says he did; not live, of course, but that with Warren Vache's help, he pre-recorded his parts. The scene where Gere's character really plays is not online, but in this clip he does a good job; right stance, overall physical look, amount of tension, fingering the valves properly. Flirting with Diane Lane does break his concentration. I get that.

Denzel Washington in Mo Better Blues does a very credible job. It helps that he is photographed in dim light-makes it hard to see his chops. They put him in the classic Miles pose-hunched over, with little movement. Spike is smart enough to give him a simple riff to play in close up and to pull back in the brief time the solo gets more complicated. Also, they know when the horn should have a harmon mute-and when it's open, for the solo.

Jack Klugman in a Twilight Zone episode called A Passage for Trumpet was not well coached. Here I speak not of his playing (although that too) but what he does when he goes to pawn his trumpet. Watch at :48.

Did you see what he did? First, he slammed his mouthpiece into the receiver-a sure way to get the thing stuck. Then, he actually, put the whole mouthpiece in his mouth. Never happens.

Ok, nuff o that.

I had reservations about other aspects of Miles Ahead, but no question that Don Cheadle was serious about learning how to play and to do a good job synching to the soundtrack. Sorry I don't have a longer clip, but this clip should show how invested he was in getting it right. Keyon Harrold does the real playing.

Jack Just-the-facts-maam Webb, a big jazz fan, made Pete Kelly's Blues. The thing that made Jack's miming work credible is his intrinsic wooden-ness, which actually keeps him from engaging in the St Vitus dance that so many actors are subject to in miming a trumpeter. His valve work is not bad.

In Clint Eastwood's film Bird, Michael Zelniker does a pretty good Red Rodney, at least in terms of fingering. He does not get the embouchure. Red had fairly Dizzy-like puffy cheeks.

Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in Born to be Blue does some things right. His general physical deportment and playing posture is right, but his embouchure is wrong and he also raises his shoulders and gears up a little too much for a breath. Careful video study of Chet would have shown that. As is the norm, his fingering for ballads is good and breaks down somewhat at higher tempos. Kevin Turcotte does the actual playing.


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