‘Miles Ahead’ is wild glimpse into Miles Davis’ volatile personality
PHOTO BY BIFROST PICTURES
Where is it playing?: Palm Theatre in SLO
What's it rated?: R
What's it worth?: $Full price
What's it worth?: $Full price
The life and music of iconic jazz trumpeter Miles Davis explored in this biopic co-written and directed by Don Cheadle, who also stars in the title role. (100 min.)
Glen: If you’re hoping for a historically accurate Miles Davis biopic, this isn’t it. Instead, Cheadle has crafted a wild glimpse into the musician’s “lost years” between 1975 and ’79, when he was holed up in this Upper West Side mansion living off of advances from Columbia Records for a new album he refuses to deliver. Like an improvised jazz composition, the film riffs on Davis but isn’t Davis. Fueled by a fictionalized buddy caper story, the film teams a gun-toting Davis with Davie Brill (Ewan McGregor), an opportunist posing as a Rolling Stone music journalist. The pair is out to recover a tape of Davis’ unreleased new music stolen by a record company stooge named Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg). The tape is nothing more than a MacGuffin to the plot, and Davis’ life story unfolds in flashbacks to his early productive years and his relationship with his first wife, dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). In addition to the kinetic back-and-forth cuts, Cheadle also employs montages, including one particularly effective one that quickly chronicles the downward spiral of his and Frances’ relationship. What I was left with is the impression that Miles Davis was a real asshole. Yes, he was a genius, but in this film he’s also a cocaine addict and egoist who’s lost his way. According to Cheadle, the events in the film are true, just jumbled around. I’m not enough of a Davis scholar to know if he was involved in a shooting at a boxing match or if he did have to chase down a stolen tape. I also don’t know if he was as big of an asshole as depicted. I do know this is an impressive directorial debut and performance by Cheadle. He delivers!
Anna: It’s obvious Cheadle threw himself into Davis’ life at full throttle; in addition to starring in and directing Miles Ahead, he also co-wrote the script with Steven Baigelman. Instead of being a hero-worshipping film where the famed musician can do no wrong, or when he does it feels justified, Miles Ahead is a raw look at the talented, yet very flawed man. He’s demanding, egotistical, explosive, and unfaithful. People generally make allowances for an artist’s eccentricities, but at some point it becomes clear that Davis was sometimes a pretty impossible person to be around. The film also incorporated his problems with chronic pain and addiction due to a degenerative hip disorder. That in itself can change someone’s personality from amiable to unbearable, especially after all efforts to quell the pain have been exhausted. When we first meet Miles in the film, he’s circling the drain of self-pity and loneliness, brooding over a record cover that features a beautiful photo of Frances. From there the film jumps back and forth through time, which can be confusing if not directed carefully. Cheadle handled the jumps with a very interesting, improvised feeling, yet kept the film feeling linear. I’m wholly impressed with his first jump into directing as well as his performance as Davis.
Glen: Cheadle doesn’t bother with anything about Davis’ early life. In the flashbacks, he’s already a bebop star. It also doesn’t bother exploring Davis’ relationship with his second wife, the actress Cicely Tyson, who’s credited with getting him off the coke and inspiring his late career. No, this isn’t a complete look at the man, but it is a fascinating one and a committed one. I read Cheadle started practicing the trumpet four years ago and played all the solos in the film, which later had Davis’ own solos inserted. Cheadle knew enough not to believe he could play as well as Davis, but he also knew he didn’t want to fake play his part. It was that sort of commitment that made his performance so spellbinding. This was clearly a labor of love, and Cheadle knew well enough that fawning over his subject leads to the sort of banal clichés too many biopics fall into. Think of Miles Ahead as an anti-biopic—it may not be all of Davis, but it certainly gives an authentic glimpse into a sliver of this complicated man’s personality. Oh, and one more thing: You can’t beat the music. Miles was a genius.
Anna: His talent was vast, but one of the things I really appreciated about this film is that it didn’t pretend that Miles could do no wrong, even when it came to his music. Everyone surrounding him was expecting an amazing comeback from him, while Davis was quietly floundering with the next chapter of his career. One thing that seemed to annoy him greatly was that people were playing his older music, whereas he had moved on from it long ago. It can be difficult to keep a story based on an actual person interesting, especially if you’re really familiar with their story. I’m no Davis expert, but what I do know of his life and work held true in this film, and blended nicely with the fictionalized events that Cheadle took liberties with. It didn’t make me a fan of the musician’s personality, but it reminded me of what an amazing musician Davis was. It also made me a fan of Cheadle as a director, and I look forward to what he comes out with next.
Sun Screen is written by New Times Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.