Miles Davis: “If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude, man.”
Truth be told, I can forgive one hell of a lot for the spare, magical tone of the Davis muted trumpet. Some artists have it, and Miles Davis had it in spades. He was undeniably a great innovator, a musical genius and a man who lived a colourful life in many ways, good and bad. That he had attitude is demonstrable through how he lived his life, so why would Don Cheadle need to invent characters and weave in fictional tales into his biopic about the coolest dude who ever lived?
Granted the device of adding a fictional interviewer (Ewan McGregor as “Dave Braden” is hardly new (see Chaplin as another example), but the film adopts a fragmented time signature, hopping randomly between real episodes (Davis’s tempestuous marriage to Frances Taylor, played by Emayatzy Corinealdi) and imaginary (a story about a session tape being stolen guns, car chases and more nonsense, hinting that Davis was a “gangsta“) in a manner that would do justice to free jazz but certainly not the conventional linear school of filmmaking. On Wikipedia it is described thus:
Cheadle took a free-form approach to the film’s narrative. Skipping around in time, it depicts Davis’ attempts to get his career back on track following a period of inactivity and drug addiction in the 1970s, his adventures with a fictional journalist (played by McGregor) who wants to profile him, and his troubled marriage to a former dancer (Corinealdi).
Like hard-line bebop, this is not always easy viewing, though it has its rewarding moments. But then, it mirrors the Miles Davis approach to music: repeat nothing and move on: “Do not fear mistakes – there are none.”
But let’s start with Cheadle. Already an actor with a fine reputation from movies such as Hotel Rwanda, which earned him an Oscar nomination, this is the project on which he staked his reputation. He played the title role, co-wrote, directed and co-produced the movie, and did so with a passion. The DVD box quotes Little White Lies (no, I don’t know who they are either) as saying “Don Cheadle was born to play Miles Davis” – and there’s no doubt that Cheadle approaches the role as if it were his destiny.
Presumably he learned to play the trumpet and look cool and natural doing so; he also smoked his way towards an early grave, given how often Davis is portrayed lighting up and puffing his way through packets of coffin nails. I’m presuming method acting did not extend to mimicking Davis’s prodigious cocaine habit, but the hero is shown here warts and all in the manner of most modern biopics. Cheadle’s Davis harbours jealousy of other musicians (‘Junior’ played by Keith Stanfield, protege of Michael Stuhlbarg‘s nasty manager-on-the-make Harper Hamilton) with coke-fuelled paranoia, for example.
Fact is, Cheadle nails Davis’s mannered behaviour and sometimes bizarre and random responses, and certainly encompasses the man’s ego and attitude, such that an Oscar nomination is a sure fire bet. Whether he captures the depths of the Miles psyche, notably his self-destructive streak and tendency towards marital catastrophe and domestic violence with honesty and credibility may provoke mixed opinions – the critics were generally in favour but certainly not unanimous in their acclaim (see bottom of this review, courtesy of Wikipedia.) The word that grabbed my attention was “unsophisticated.”
However, the key to this sliver of Davis life is whether Cheadle gets to the bottom of the five year career hiatus explored in this movie (commonly put down to “ill health” in the same sort of euphemism as drunks being described as “tired and emotional.”) Perhaps he got bored; maybe it was lack of inspiration, the musician’s equivalent of writer’s block; almost certainly it contained an element of escaping the pressure of creativity and being king of cool, shown through terse responses to fans praising his early work. But then again, it could have been something deeper, a man searching for his raison d’être amidst the train wreck of a life.
I need to see the film again, but on first viewing I did not pick up much by way of deeper motives, other than contemplative shots with Miles licking his lips and looking into the middle distance while contemplating a chequered past. The fragmented structure of the film does not allow us consistency, but does contrast the young and creative Miles with his later incarnation. We see him in the course of a vicious row with Frances but then going on to make great music with a nervous-looking quintet including young actor/musicians pulling off convincing portrayals of Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.
You can read this film as the superficial dominating the deeper insights. The wisecracking one-liners and wacky car chases are there, but two red herrings are thrown in our general direction at the end of the movie: one comes when the fictional tape is finally recovered and played – only to reveal Miles playing electric organ, not trumpet; and secondly, we see Miles trying to play trumpet after a long, long gap – only to find he has lost his embouchure – but we don’t pick up too much of the moody performances, playing with his horn pointing down at the ground or with his back to the audience – which certainly characterised his later years.
We know he recovers it, going on to reinvent himself in a modern genre and make great albums such as Tutu. Most telling of all, the film dreams on beyond its homage, and indeed beyond the death of Davis in 1991, by showing him playing in a modern genre with some great musicians including the real Herbie Hancock, no less. These dudes love the man, of course they wanted to make their own tribute!
There’s a lot of nonsense here, but my advice is to look beyond it and find your own insights, for those are what will win Cheadle his best actor award. You heard it here first.
Miles Ahead received generally positive reviews from critics. Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating in the 0–100 range based on reviews from top mainstream publications, calculated an average score of 64, based on 21 reviews. Based on 83 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a 72% approval rating from reviewers, with an average score of 6.4/10; the site’s consensus read, “Miles Ahead is worth watching for Don Cheadle’s strong work on both sides of the camera, even if this unconventional biopic doesn’t quite capture its subject’s timeless appeal”
In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote that while Davis purists may complain about the imagined sequences in the film, but “they’ll also miss the pleasure and point of this playfully impressionistic movie.” She was particularly impressed by Cheadle’s ability to shift between “times, moods and modes effortlessly”. Chicago Sun-Times critic Richard Roeper gave Miles Ahead three out of four stars and found most of it silly but often engrossing, crediting Cheadle for attempting to make a unique music biopic while giving “a brilliant performance worthy of an Oscar nomination”. In a less enthusiastic review, Kenneth Turan from the Los Angeles Times said the only “fully realized” characters played by Cheadle and Corinealdi were surrounded by a plot he deemed clichéd, unsophisticated, and forgettable. Rex Reed was more critical in a one-star review for The New York Observer, writing that it was overwhelmingly plagued by “hyberole and innuendo” while taking issue with Cheadle’s depiction of Davis and his life: “According to the jazz musicians I know, he was unpredictable and borderline crazy, but nothing like the moody, unhinged and dangerous stray bullet depicted here.”