Sony Pictures Classics 1 hour 40 minutes R
Like jazz, this film is all over the place, but Don Cheadle gives eccentric musician Miles Davis the characterization and respect he deserves. Like jazz improvisation, or “social music,” as Miles Davis called it, the film takes off in different directions. It’s a jumbled mess at times. But Cheadle captures the essence of the temperamental Davis right down to his raspy whisper of a voice. Reportedly originally titled “Kill the Trumpet Player,” the film paints a dark picture of the antics of a musician who dropped out for awhile because of depression, drugs and alcohol.
It took 10 years to get this film to the screen with the approval of Davis’ family. Unbeknownst to Cheadle, Davis’ nephew said the actor would play his uncle in a film at his uncle’s posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. Cheadle was surprised, but took up the charge, directing, writing it with Steven Baigelman (Get On Up, Wicked City TV) and starring in it.
Cheadle played saxophone growing up, took up trumpet 5 years ago so he could finger every note in scenes showing him as Davis performing. The recordings from Davis were then dubbed in. It’s a mix of those recording and original music by Robert Glasper played by trumpeter Keyon Harrold. The actor also learned enough that he did kind of a tour of his own playing around the country to tout his movie. (We’re jazz fans and in Chicago, he played at Andy’s Jazz near the Wrigley Building where a talented family member in our family played trumpet leading his own jazz quintet every Thursday night for 9 years.)
Miles Ahead became a buddy flick when Ewan McGregor, as Rolling Stone reporter Dave Brill, was added to the cast. Supposedly a “White” actor had to be added in order to get funding for the film so it could get made. The film opens with Davis and Brill being chased in the rain and the shot of an an old recording tape can that turns out to be the motivation for Davis’ behavior throughout the film. The musician took a hiatus from performing and became a hermit in his upper West side apartment recording new material which he wouldn’t show anybody. His Columbia record bosses wanted to get a hold of the new material, since he was still on the payroll. Michael Stuhlbargh plays the obnoxious bully of a music exec with his own young trumpet player and agenda trying to get hold of Davis’ charts any way he can. There are altercations at a boxing match, and a visit to music biz offices brandishing guns.
Some of the incidents in the film actually took place, (like the arrest outside a NYC Club he was playing that put him in jail), but Cheadle points out he took poetic license with if, how and why they all happened. The Director envisioned it a lot like jazz where it takes on a life of its own. He and McGregor go on a wild ride, guns blazing. Did that actually happen? Don’t know. Did Davis really dress, wear his hair and talk like like that? Yes, he did.
Was his voice really that soft and raspy? Yes. He had had nodes removed from his larynx before the period covered in the film and was not supposed to talk for 10 days. He reportedly got into an ugly shouting match and never got his voice back. Was he mean to his dancer wife, Frances Taylor, played by the stunningly gorgeous Emayatzy Corinealdi? Yes, he forced her to quit dancing, which was never explained why in the film, beat her and she left him.
But, unfortunately, there is so much background about the musical genius that was left out. Nothing in his childhood points to why he was so angry and weird. He grew up in a middle class family in Illinois. His father was a dentist and his Mother was an accomplished blues pianist. He started playing trumpet at 13 and was so good, he was playing with pros, then accepted at Julliard in New York City. He dropped out with his Dad’s permission, to go on to play with everyone from Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, to Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Herbie Hancock and more.
Davis went multi platinum for his Kind of Blue album and Bitches Brew was another favorite. Davis is also credited with creating what became called cool jazz, bebop, jazz fusion and so many different terms for cutting edge music. But he adamantly never called it jazz. And later in life, when he performed, he would turn his back on the audience and play. He had his own way of doing things which is why so many fans revered him.
The film only covers the time when he dropped out before he got back on his feet again. So there is nothing about meeting and marrying actress Cicely Tyson who helped him kick cocaine. And there is only one shot of Davis painting. He is a well-known artist and one of his paintings was actually offered as a bonus to a crowd funder to get the movie made. We know someone who has collected his paintings for years.
Is this worth your bucks? If you love jazz, it’s a must, even though it ignores Davis’ best times playing with the greats. This is not a biography, it’s a fictionalized and painful portrait of an innovator with incredible talent. The music is amazing. It’s like a two hour concert of the best jazz. Just know that, like jazz improvisation, the story is all over the place.
Still, Cheadle’s film is a labor of love. He wanted to show what a tormented and tortured soul this incredibly artistic genius had and he succeeds. Above all, Cheadle embodies the character down to the voice and trumpet playing. Cheadle playing Davis deserves the notice he’s getting for a creative first time directing, and another great performance.