Miles Ahead

April 21, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Don Cheadle didn’t want to do a biopic, and how can you blame him? As a person, Miles was not an attractive or sympathetic character. What he cared about was himself – his music, his painting, his drugs. He treated the women in his his life as though they were possessions, like his stylish clothes and cars, except that as far as we know he did not beat his suits or Ferraris. Besides, Cheadle probably wanted to avoid the biopic cliches – the significant childhood scene where the boy’s talent first becomes apparent, the early struggles, the success (fast montage of club posters with the hero’s name rising in the billing), the downfall, the redemption.

“I was born, I moved to New York, met some cats, made some music, did some dope, made some more music, then you showed up at my house.” Miles delivers this line, along with a right hook to the face, to a journalist who shows up at his door wanting to do a story. It’s as though Cheadle is saying to the audience, “You want biography? Here’s your biography.”

But the movie avoids only some of the biopic cliches. It keeps others.  That journalist who wants to track down the “real” person, for example, is a familiar movie device (“Citizen Kane”). At least the movie doesn’t end with him rolling a sheet of paper into his typewriter and tapping out the “The Real Miles” or some such.

Instead of biopic, Cheadle gives us a completely made-up story, complete with guns and high-speed
car chases – not exactly what comes to mind when you hear the name Miles Davis. The trailer, as usual, gives you the plot such as it is.

It’s another venerable plot line – the artist preserving his art from the  vultures who want it only because they can turn it into filthy lucre. The art in this case is that tape that Miles recorded privately and keeps locked in a drawer. (There may have been such a tape, but on it Miles plays organ, and from all reports, not very well. And nobody stole it.)

There’s even a song-origins scene hokey enough to be in a 1940s songwriting team “and then we wrote” movie. Miles, at home watching his wife Frances Taylor dance, picks up his horn and starts to play a melody that sounds like the children’s song “Put Your Little Foot.” Jazzers will get the reference: that melody turned up as “Fran-Dance” on the 1958 album “Jazz Track.”

Music was the best and most important thing about Miles, so the big disappointment (for me at least) is that so little of the film is about the making of music. The secondary role is logical given that Cheadle chose to set the film in the late 1970s when Miles stopped playing and disappeared from public view for five years. So it’s mostly in the flashbacks that we hear Miles’s music. Cheadle apparently learned to play trumpet, and he fingers accurately to Miles’s recorded solos from well-known albums like “Kind of Blue.” But these snatches rarely last more than about 15 seconds. There is one music-making scene: Miles and Gil Evans discuss some details in the arrangement of “Gone” during the recording session of “Porgy and Bess.”

Still, Cheadle carries the film. He captures an essential part of Miles’s character – the absolute confidence and the apparent indifference to what anyone else thinks. Miles, who, even in the 50s when jazz was struggling to be respectable, walked  off the set during his sidemen’s solos and literally turned his back on his audience, who then to the dismay of many turned his back on bebop for electric and rock (there’s a parallel here with Dylan and his audience). That’s the Miles we see. I just wish that we got to hear more of his music.   

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