First things first, April is Jazz History Month, perhaps the only month in the year dedicated to an American musical art form. That being said, three films about iconic Jazz performers, are being released, during the span of a month. The one I saw was “Miles Ahead.”
Named after a Miles Davis album, the film stars Don Cheadle as Davis in a semi-biographical film, that takes the rule-book of biopics and chucks it out the window.
When the movie opens, Davis is siting for an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. The interviewer, asks Davis a question which prompts him to pick up his trumpet, and soon we are whisked to his New York home where he is working on new music.
Music that could give him a comeback, if Davis would stop stonewalling.
The Davis we are seeing are from his lost years. Hobbled by a degenerative hip and drug addiction, Davis shuffles around his shabby home, filled with booze, drugs and other pieces’ of refuse of a man lost in his own mind. One character calls him, “jazz’s Howard Hughes,” due to his hermetic lifestyle.
That stupor fades away when Davis encounters David Braden (Ewan McGregor) a writer, who also happens to come from Rolling Stone magazine. Davis is angered by Braden’s invasion into his domain but, Braden claims that Davis’ record company, Columbia Records sent him to write the comeback piece. Davis, who also has a bone to pick with his label over a $20,000 check, brings Braden along for the ride.
Over the course the film, Davis and Braden, talk, smoke, snort cocaine, and chase some sleazy d-bag producer Harper Hamilton, (Michael Stuhlbrag) who steals a tape that contains Davis’ new material.
Watching Cheadle’s Davis is at times, illuminating because we see privy to Davis’ genius as a performer, his ability to find which note works best with his compositions, for album’s like “Sketches of Spain” and “Someday My Prince Will Come”.
The album cover of “…Will Come,” serves as one of the triggers for Davis’ flashbacks to his relationship with his first wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corindealdi). Taylor an accomplished dancer in her own right, serves as a muse of sorts, and through the flashbacks we see how Davis shines albeit at the expense of Taylor.
While there is a mutual love between the two, it is not enough to save Davis from slowly destroying himself, first with women, then with his abuse towards Taylor and finally his hip begins to give out. His hair and clothes transition from the suits and sophistication of the 50’s and 60’s to the wild and counter-culture inspired of the 70’s, which appears to be befitting to Davis’ nature. They are other flashback triggers, but this one sticks out due to Davis’ regret of the past.
McGregor himself, holds his own as the wily journalist Braden, who begins to see why Davis wants to be alone, but also can’t quite resist making a few dollars off of Davis’ fame one way or the other. Midway through the film, I begun to question Braden’s involvement with the whole affair. Is he really there for the story, or is he there just for the ride and some cocaine he managed to score for Davis. A dealer who also happens to be a fan.
The viewer might also wonder if this is all real or is this in someone’s head. I’m not entirely sure what is the right answer, but the only person who knows that is Miles Davis.
Cheadle dodges the tried-and-true tactics of biopic format by pretty much doing the movie his way. Cheadle also used Indiegogo as a fundraising platform for the film, perhaps to zero in on some die-hard Davis fans so that they too felt invested in the story. The plot feels fresh and plausible despite its improvisational feel which might be a stumbling block for some viewers.
If they tried this under the standard biopic formula, Davis who come off as wooden and inaccessible, something he himself disdains. It might get the facts down in a linear fashion, but Cheadle covers the bases enough so that it still is a biopic while still getting Davis right.
Cheadle also does not put Davis’ death date at the end of the film because Davis’ spirit is in those who jammed with him and those who came after him, the innovators, the artists, the genius, the ones who could speak his language and continue jazz to the next generation.
The best line of the film also sums up the films mantra “If you’re gonna tell a story, man, come with some attitude.” If Davis was alive, he would approve of this film and it’s unique ‘approach’ of telling this story.