Miles Ahead 
directed by and starring Don Cheadle
1 hour, 40 minutes
at the ByTowne Cinema, April 29 to May 5
If I could have just closed my eyes and only listened to the soundtrack, or only watched the concert sequence in its last five minutes, I would have really enjoyed this film
But instead I sat through several car chases, a gunfight at a boxing match, and people being beaten up and shot at – all a complete invention – for what was supposed to be a biopic of one of the greatest jazz trumpeters, band-leaders, and composers of all time.
This was not, to my mind, an accurate or fair depiction of Miles Davis.
These are the facts: from 1975 to 1980, Miles Davis stopped performing, stopped recording albums, and even stopped playing his trumpet. This interregnum started because Davis was mentally and physically and spiritually exhausted, needing to create a fresh artistic vision. But, unlike other times in his life when he recovered after a short time and went on with renewed creativity, this time he fell into a morass of drugs (particularly cocaine), one-night stands, and depression. As Davis explains in his autobiography, his house was filthy and full of cockroaches, and he shut out most of his old friends. He was also continuing to suffer from health problems, including a painfully arthritic hip.
It's also true that Davis had a violent streak; he admitted he beat up his first wife, Frances Taylor Davis, a number of times. She eventually left him in 1965 when his paranoia and violent arguments became too much for her. He could also be verbally very nasty, although he was also generous and very loyal to his friends.
He was (deservedly) a proud man, and he was left angry and embittered by too-frequent racist treatment, including being assaulted for no reason by the police.
Any biopic has to acknowledge that Davis was a complicated and sometimes unpleasant man. It also must acknowledge that he was highly intelligent, relentlessly innovative, an incredible mentor to many musicians, and a musical genius who rewrote jazz over and over.
Miles Ahead, on the other hand, feels like character assassination, with a side order of exploitative violence and cheap thrills.
The story, such as it is, involves the theft of the master tape of Davis' most recent recording session, which he was still working on, and Davis' increasingly violent efforts to recover it. In this he is abetted by a journalist with sketchy ethics (Dave Brill, played by Ewan McGregor) who's along for a) the ride, b) the story he hopes to sell to Rolling Stone, and c) all the booze and drugs he can cadge.
The villain is a dubious Columbia Records A&R man, who, when we first meet him, assesses Davis as “probably more profitable dead than alive now”. He drags in his protégé, a talented young trumpet player named Junior, and the plot gets steadily stupider and more violent.
This 1970s narrative is smoothly inter-cut with numerous flashbacks to the 1960s – which are far more interesting than the main story, and actually true to Davis' life (at least as far as he told it in his autobiography). We see Davis meeting and wooing Frances and how she becomes his muse, and then how he drives her away with his erratic and violent behaviour. We see him in concert, and in orchestral recording sessions with Gil Evans, probably for Porgy and Bess. We see him in rehearsal with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter playing “Nefertiti”. Put together, these scenes could have become the core of an interesting movie, but as it is, they don't have the chance to coalesce.
Don Cheadle both directed the movie and starred as Davis. The project apparently was a labour of love and took many years to come together (the final bit of funding came through an Indiegogo campaign). He also had the assistance of several members of Davis' family – which makes it even less understandable why this movie so badly misrepresents Davis.
On Miles Ahead, four people, including Cheadle, are given writing credits. The unfortunate result is a script that doesn't hang together and doesn't have a clear theme or message, although it feels as though it had ambitions to be more.
The movie seems to want to talk about artistic control – as evidenced by Davis' increasingly frantic efforts to get his tape back – and the importance of following one's own vision, but only in a diffuse, unclear manner. At one point Brill and Davis visit a young drug dealer, and Davis autographs several of his LPs. But they're albums from almost two decades before, music that Davis says he doesn't play any more. “But that's what people dig”, the kid insists. An interesting scene – but not followed up.
Cheadle did a good job of looking like and moving like Davis, and his trumpet fingering was convincing. However, he portrayed Davis as primarily a strung-out, unstable, and washed-up character, and hardly shows Davis' acknowledged charisma and intelligence and musical talent.
There is a scene where Davis muses about how Chopin was a revolutionary in classical music, and another where he works with Junior to improve a solo by replacing an F# with an Fm7 in a chord in order to open up the phrase. Good stuff, but it's lost in all the drugs and gunfights.
So what actually worked in this movie? The cinematography was interesting: I really liked one section where a sequence of Polaroids was used to indicate Davis' extensive and varied sex life. The colour of the 1970s scenes looked deeply saturated, an effect which enhanced the drugged-out narrative. And the transitions between the main sequence and the 60s flashbacks were both clear and inventive (at one point, Davis is staring at the replica of one of his album covers in the Columbia Records elevator, and the back of the elevator opens up into one of his 60s performances).
I enjoyed the soundtrack, which combined classic Miles Davis tracks from the 50s to the 70s with original music by jazz pianist and composer Robert Glasper. It was a fine mix which worked well in the context of the movie. The soundtrack has been released on CD, and in May Glasper is set to release a companion album called Everything's Beautiful. That disc will remix some of Davis' Columbia master takes and outtakes, combining them with music by musicians ranging from jazz (John Scofield), R&B (Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu), soul (Laura Mvula), hip-hop (Rashad Smith) and rap (Phonte, Illa J) – which should at least be an interesting experiment.
The movie closes with Brill yelling “Hey Miles, are you coming back?”, and Davis replying, “You better believe it!”
Then it immediately segues into a commanding trumpet line – opening a concert sequence which imagines Davis playing in the present day. The musicians include Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Antonio Sanchez, Gary Clark, Jr., Esperanza Spalding, and Glasper. They're playing a tune by Glasper called “What’s Wrong with That?” and it's a fine, funky, jazz piece that you could indeed imagine Davis enjoying writing and performing.
It's an energetic and fitting close to what was otherwise a disappointing movie.
Ultimately the problems with this movie start with its very conception. It doesn't make sense to me why Cheadle would have picked a period in Davis' life that was the least representative and the least interesting part of either his career or his personal life. Watching someone being strung out on drugs is simply boring. Watching someone be depressed and frustrated and unable to complete their work is a downer. It's not cinematically interesting.
And while Davis did eventually come back in the 80s (due to the intervention of his friends and especially actress Cicely Tyson), it wasn't to the heights of his career.
If Cheadle wanted a Miles Davis movie with conflict, it could have been over the racism Davis faced, or his single-minded toughness at getting the sound he wanted for his music regardless of other musicians, or his fights with record companies. Or the movie could have simply been about his beautiful, compelling music, which was ultimately the important thing about this complicated, often difficult, and incredibly inventive jazz musician.
– Alayne McGregor
Miles Ahead will make its Ottawa debut at the ByTowne Cinema on Friday, April 29, 2016, for a week-long run.
Read OttawaJazzScene.ca's other reviews of jazz-related films:
- Song of Lahore shows jazz triumphing over intolerance (movie review)
- Born To Be Blue stays true to Chet Baker's music, but romanticizes his life (movie review)
- Whiplash drums up the tension, but doesn't do justice to jazz (movie review)