The half-serious thing they always say about jazz, particularly the “cool jazz” popularized by Miles Davis, is that you have to listen to the notes they don’t play.
If your goal in watching Miles Ahead is to come away with a full cradle-to-grave understanding of Miles Davis’ life, you’ll have to look for the scenes that weren’t filmed.
Miles Ahead, directed by and starring Don Cheadle, whose mimicry is superlative, gives you sketches of Davis drawn from one of his darker periods, a self-imposed retirement in the late 1970s. Cheadle nails the swagger (and the humor in that swagger) and his admiration for the man and his music is evident.
The first tunes you hear aren’t from the beloved likes of The Birth of the Cool, Kind of Blue or even Bitches Brew. They are from a wildly experimental Osaka concert from 1975, which many critics took 20 years to recognize as brilliant.
Columbia University’s Phil Schaap gets a significant over-the-phone cameo. No one in the real world knows who Schaap is, but jazzbos know him as the tireless, savant-like jazz radio DJ who can name every club date at Minton’s Playhouse from memory.
Cheadle’s got the cred, and the period evocation is tremendous. It’s just that I’m not sure he has all that much to say.
The bulk of Miles Ahead is a fabricated action-adventure scenario. Whacked-out on drugs and pining for his lost love, the dancer Francis Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), Davis is holed up in his apartment, obsessing over a reel of new music. The suits at the record studio want that tape: they smell money.
Meanwhile, a scrappy Rolling Stone journalist (Ewan McGregor, as the fictional Dave Brill) wants the story of the Miles Davis comeback. After some cajoling – and thrown punches – Davis allows Brill to hitch to his saddle, especially when they need to steal back the masters from a bulldog record exec played by Michael Stuhlbarg.
Their adventures take them from a university dope dealer’s dorm room to the basement of the Village Vanguard to a night-time shootout on the streets of Manhattan. Along the way, either through cocaine-fueled conversation or simple flashbacks, we catch glimpses of Miles’ career (behind the scenes at the recording session for Porgy and Bess, for example) which are often eclipsed by the haunting memory of his tempestuous romance with Taylor.
Those who know Davis’ music well will be able to pick important collaborators out of the background. Hey, that’s Bill Evans. Hey, that’s Wayne Shorter. Hey, that’s Teo Macero. But don’t go looking for Charlie Parker (who had his own movie, Clint Eastwood’s Bird) and don’t go looking for John Coltrane (maybe his estate has something in development too.)
Incidents from Davis’ history do make it into the film, like getting a nightstick over the head from a racist cop, or chasing Taylor out of their apartment with a knife during a paranoid episode. But these scenes don’t pop quite so much as the would-be 70s heist movie, and the only other musician given any dramatic heft is a fictional up-and-coming trumpeter called Junior.
I’m willing to buy the Ibsen Master Builder trope, but I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone thought adding fake car chases and gun battles was a good idea. It doesn’t quite make the movie collapse, but it comes close. When parts of a biopic are so demonstrably false (or at least not as believable as the Salieri/Mozart competition in Amadeus) the whole thing goes out of tune.
Was there not enough of a melody to riff on in Davis’ actual life? I also question the central conceit that new music by Miles at this time would be such a hot commodity. When Davis did make his comeback, while a big deal to some, it wasn’t quite the commercial triumph shown here. I get that these are symbols, but come on.
This aggravation aside, Miles Ahead, especially with Cheadle and McGregor as an unexpected pair of buddy cops, is quite enjoyable. Its intentionally meandering structure and clever use of editing make this one of the few movies in which you eagerly anticipate the next transition.
And considering how much of Davis’ life isn’t in the movie – his wealthy upbringing in East St Louis, his short stint at Julliard, replacing Dizzy Gillespie in Charlie Parker’s group, the spontaneous generation of “fusion” with In A Silent Way – there is still an opportunity for a more square filmmaker to do a straight musical biopic.
Miles Ahead isn’t an epic for the ages but it is, undeniably, cool.
This article was written by Jordan Hoffman, for theguardian.com on Saturday 10th October 2015 20.22 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010