Don Cheadle’s jumpy, jazzy biography of Miles Davis takes a lot of liberties with the facts, but it reminds you that jazz itself takes a lot of liberties with the notes
Starring: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi
Directed by: Don Cheadle
Rating: 3½ stars out of 5
Running time: 100 minutes
By Jay Stone
What responsibility does a biographer owe to his subject? It’s kind of like asking about the duty of an artist to his model: must Picasso stick one eye on each side of the face, or can he squinch them both over on the left there, to make a point about perspective or to challenge our way of seeing?
Likewise, can Don Cheadle invent a life for the legendary trumpet player Miles Davis — a life that includes car chases through the streets of New York City, punctuated by a running gun battle — that has nothing to do with reality but somehow illuminates some deeper reality?
The question, raised by Cheadle’s entertaining but fictionalized biopic Miles Ahead, is complicated by two facts. First, Davis played jazz (although he hated the term and preferred “social music”), a form that encourages improvisation on a theme. If Davis can embellish Rodgers and Hart’s It Never Entered My Mind, for instance, then who can complain about a gunfight that didn’t take place, but could have?
Second, with all due respect, Don Cheadle is no Picasso.
However, he proves to be an innovative film director and — in the lead role of Davis — an actor of full commitment to the part, from his raspy voice to his arthritic limp to his angry impatience to the very fingering of his trumpet. It’s a great performance, even if detractors may suspect that the unhinged movie around it was just invented as a wrapper, a stage on which Cheadle could shine.
Miles Ahead has a jittery jump. It’s a music movie with many of the familiar elements of the genre, including the damaged, drug-addicted genius, his loyal but betrayed woman, his downfall and his comeback. However, it’s put together with a slapdash invention: it’s the sort of thing you suspect Miles himself might have made if he made movies.
It’s set in the late 1970s, when Davis, hailed as a brilliant innovator, has stopped playing and is nose-deep in cocaine. He lives in a brownstone in Manhattan where a pushy reporter named Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), purporting to be from Rolling Stone magazine, shows up for an interview. Davis can’t get rid of him, so he uses him as a driver to take him around town.
They start at Columbia studios where Davis, armed with a loaded pistol, wants to collect a $20,000 cheque his says the company owes him. Later, they take part in that car chase, an odd couple who bicker and bond — Davis wanting little but money and drugs, Brill looking for a story and a foothold — in a manner reminiscent of one of the buddy action comedies of the era.
In an elevator at Columbia, Davis sees a bunch of album covers, including Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ (one of the on-the-nose bits if irony in the screenplay by Cheadle and Steven Baigelman) and Davis’s own Some Day My Prince Will Come. That album features a photo of Davis’s wife, a dancer named Francis Taylor. This sends him into a reverie of the past — he walks right through the back door of the elevator and into the 1950s, the start of a trip back and forth in time.
It’s in the past where Miles Ahead finds its most authentic voice. Davis meets Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) one night on the street, writes his phone number on a $20 bill and hands it to her, the coolest cat in the urban jungle. Later, we see a famous incident in front of the old Birdland jazz club where Miles is attacked and arrested by police and Francis, so fiercely loyal she gives up her career for him, marches down to the station house to spring him.
Corinealdi is strong, but her character is part of a familiar template in the jazz life as told in film: the woman who’s abandoned in favour of the music or the drugs (or the other women). Miles Ahead is rescued from familiarity by its unhinged story of Davis and Brill racing around town trying to recover a stolen tape of his music. The villain is a rival manager (Michael Stulhbarg) who is pushing his own trumpet protégé but sees a chance to get new, unreleased Miles material: he’s the record business personified, and Davis’s great dark anger — his refusal to play along — gives Miles Ahead an undercurrent of humour.
For a movie about music, Miles Ahead doesn’t feature a lot of it, but the tunes are tastefully chosen and provide a sweet background to the madness on screen. Jazz purists will probably hate Miles Ahead for its liberties and for leaving out so much of Miles’s musical heritage (frequent collaborator Gil Evans has a tiny role). We never see what made Davis great: we’re only told that he is. It’s a small slice of a large career, just as Chet Baker’s life was cut down to its dramatic core in the recent Born To Be Blue.
It is part of a new genre, speculative biography, that has already established a foothold in literature. It wasn’t like this, but this is what it would have been like if it was.
– 30 –