“Putting the movie together with the financiers, it was like, ‘Who’s the White dude in it?’ Not a White dude riding shotgun; he had to be in the driver’s seat. Until we got Ewan McGregor to play the journalist tracking down Miles, it was not happening.” —from the Playboy interview with Don Cheadle.

The problem with casting prominent actors in biographies is the difficulty of forgetting the celebrity of the performer in the role of a real life person (Jamie Foxx did successfully “disappear” into his portrayal of Ray Charles in 2004’s “Ray”). Devotees of television’s “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” have pointed out this concern with the performances of Cuba Gooding and John Travolta.

In the course of his now 30-year career, Don Cheadle is a familiar enough face that this “branding” issue is central to the hurdle of immersing the viewer in the storyline of “Miles Ahead,” his initial directing effort, for which he assumed producing and writing duties as well.

Well before the film’s March 31 opening, the film also stirred up controversy with Cheadle’s revelation that he’d been forced to write a White character into the script in order to secure funding to complete his passion project on innovative jazz icon Miles Davis. Coming on the heels of the Oscar diversity scandals, this disclosure resonated with a reverberating impact. If nothing else, this film perhaps serves as a testimonial to the status of entertainment at this point in history.

The result of the addition is a convoluted plot in which a White reporter (an excellent Ewan McGregor) barges into the trumpeter’s Manhattan townhouse on the premise of writing an article for Rolling Stone. He and Cheadle as Davis then become embroiled in a hair-brained scheme to retrieve a stolen master tape of his recorded music that may be the key to Davis’ comeback from a self-imposed exile in the late 1970s.

During the course of his career, Cheadle has been fortunate to work under the guidance of such luminaries as Brian De Palma, Stephan Fears, John Singleton, Steven Soderbergh, and Paul Thomas Anderson. These associations informed his directorial debut, and the film progresses smoothly in spite of its nonlinear story structure and improbable plot. Cheadle’s acting, as always, is impeccable as he affects the musician’s legendary raspy speech and abrasive personality. When not in pursuit of his stolen tapes, Davis is consumed by his appetite for cocaine at the same time pining for the love of his life, dancer Frances Taylor, who escaped their volatile marriage precisely because of her mate’s narcotic and emotional imbalance.

Yet and still, it remains a one-dimensional performance, broken up by a welcome flashback episode revisiting his 1960 collaboration with bandleader Gil Evans on the classic “Sketches of Spain” album. This interlude suggests the discipline and professionalism this giant of 20th century music brought to the execution of his art.

Cheadle’s competence in the art of filmmaking is manifested as well, even when the production reverts to the tired old clichés of car chases and shoot outs to move the action forward.

Chet Baker, another master trumpeter afflicted with narcotic and/or psychological baggage, is the subject of his own biopic, which opened a week prior to the Davis film (another film, “I saw the Light,” chronicling the similar substance abuses of Country and Western crooner Hank Williams is also currently in theaters). Baker was a contemporary of Davis who did not have nearly the cultural or musical impact of the co-called “Prince of Darkness,” and yet was notable in his own way, because his superb musical talent was coupled with matinee idol good looks (he was often compared to actor James Dean).

An accomplished singer as well as an instrumentalist, Ethan Hawk assumes Baker’s early Dorian Gray-like persona in “Born to be Blue.” Hawk is no less a theatrical talent than Cheadle, and yet he does not quite convey the magnetism that must have compelled scores of young women to couple themselves to the real-life Baker, a human train wreck/heartthrob.

But here is where Hawk excels. He projects the emotional frailty of a man who is his own worse enemy, and hell-bent on disappointing everyone with the gall to attempt to help him. Foremost of these is English/Nigerian actress Carmen Ejogo, in the dual roles of Elaine/Jane, who is meant to be a composite of Baker’s paramours (curiously, the man’s three actual wives were two Caucasian and one Pakistani woman).

The lovers find no compassion on the home front in the ethnically oppositional 1960s, when they visit Baker’s Dust Bowl ravaged “Okie” parents. His father gives his son’s paramour chilling advice, with the admonition “You look like a nice colored girl. If I was you, I’d get in that car and …”

Meanwhile, his intended’s folks offer the more respectable observation about the wisdom of a union with a confirmed junkie.

As portrayed by Hawk, Baker’s depression is fueled by a wish for acceptance by fellow horn men Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis (Kedar Brown in a convincing portrayal during the limited time he’s on screen) in one of the few professions in which Black men set the standards. Davis especially goes out of his way to discourage the upstart.

“Go back to the beach,” he snaps after hearing Baker perform,”… this ain’t the place for you!”

Visually, “Born to be Blue” is diametrically contrasted with “Miles Ahead,” with its muted color palette spliced with black and white flashback episodes.

The Davis biography shot by Roberto Schaefer relies on a hodgepodge of 16mm film and various digital cameras, to suggest the staccato brashness of a trumpet’s counterpoint against the funky cushion of a tight rhythm section.

Both films play hard and fast with the truth as they pointedly veer away from what would be considered a true “biopic.” They are however, united by the depiction of misanthropic personalities whose only redeeming trait is the unique art they produce. By focusing on isolated, specific periods in the life of their subjects, the filns make valid, if superficial points about the attraction wielded by those simultaneously damaged and gifted.

“Born to be Blue” is screening in an exclusive engagement at The Landmark Theater in the Westside Pavilion, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., and Laemmle Playhouse 7, 673 E Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena while “Miles Ahead” is currently at the ArcLight Cinemas, 6360 Sunset Blvd. and at the Landmark Westside Pavilion Mall, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.