TO CELEBRATE YESTERDAY’S RELEASE OF OUR 110TH 33/13 ON BITCHES BREW, WE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE FIFTH AND FINAL INSTALLMENT OF MILES DAVIS WEEK BY AUTHOR GEORGE GRELLA JR. !
It’s not a back-handed criticism to open this review by stating that, as a Miles Davis/jazz lover, I’m fundamentally glad that Miles Ahead, the new movie about Miles Davis that stars (and was directed by) Don Cheadle, was even made. As integral as jazz as is to American culture, it’s also barely a divot on the capitalist/commercial landscape. And jazz just doesn’t translate well to the screen—as pure music (outside of musicals and commercial genres) doesn’t make for a good visual story. Jazz is process, not just in the making but the playing.
The few jazz movies tell the stories of individual musicians are rarely able to reveal anything about what makes jazz different than rock and roll, or composing classical music. Even a strong example like Round Midnight, with Dexter Gordon in the lead role of the Bud Powell/Lester Young composite character Dale Turner, makes assertions about what makes jazz different, and special, without actually demonstrating that, save for some good jazz heard diegetically and on the soundtrack. They are stories with music, something like music videos, but much longer and with much more dialogue.
So, now there’s this Miles Davis movie, Miles Ahead. It’s not a biopic—Miles’ personal and musical life would taking many, many hours to tell even in survey. Instead, it’s the story of two (highly fictional) days in Miles’ life, in July of 1979. The movie sets the date with a scene towards the beginning, where Miles is at home, dissipating, while listening to WKCR 89.9 FM in New York City (the world’s greatest jazz radio station, pace the post-screening pronouncement in the form of a question from a WBGO DJ). Phil Schaap comes on the air, makes some comments that anger Miles, and so Miles calls the station to bitch at Phil and tell him to play “Solea” from Sketches of Spain. This actually happened.
Shortly after, journalist Dave Brill, a composite character played by Ewan McGregor, comes to the door, claiming that Rolling Stone magazine sent him to do a profile. Hi-jinks, and jazz (on the soundtrack and through Miles’ memories), ensue. Specifically, Brill first tries to obtain a reel-to-reel tape Miles has that everyone, especially the suits at Columbia Records, think is a session tape that is Miles’ next record. Then, once the tape is lost (or rather, acquired by less than ethical hands), Brill tries to help Miles recover it—all for the story.
The movie has a nested structure that works well, and that reveals it’s own aesthetic and intellectual core. The two days of the story are set inside bookends of Miles’ comeback in or after 1981, with Brill interviewing Miles for a broadcast. Inside the two days, Miles has frequent flashbacks to early points in his career, most of which revolve around Francis Taylor, his second wife, who’s picture is on the cover of his Someday My Prince Will Come album. These are well done, they show both Miles’ personal charm and magnetism, and his horrible caddishness and treatment of Francis (played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, who is beautiful, with a compelling screen presence). They also are a clever way to show Miles making music (Cheadle is a credible mime on the trumpet, and the original music, by Robert Glasper, is played off-screen by Keyon Harrold, who is a credible Miles imitator).
Miles loses the tape and struggles to get it back, Miles has Francis and keeps losing her, deliberately. The movie is about loss, which is a fascinating idea. Miles’ career was about losing the past, moving on from prior achievements and escaping the stasis of the present moment. But the movie isn’t philosophical or abstract in anyway. In fact, it includes an unfortunate car chase with gunplay, which is frankly ridiculous. Perhaps the producers demanded some crowd-pleasing action before they ponied up the dough. That’s show business.
The word that Miles often used to dismiss music that he found the same old same-old, sad, comes to mind, for how a story about one of the greatest and most compelling musicians in history has to be buried under a white guy/black guy buddy action movie. At least Miles Ahead is no hagiography, it’s honest about his repellant behavior towards Francis, and the scene in which he first meets her displays both Miles charm and contempt towards women.
For Miles’ fans, there are enticing historical moments, good and bad. There is a tight, excellent little sequence from one of the Porgy and Bess recording sessions, where Miles and Gil Evans (Jeffrey Glover), work out improvements on the arrangements in the studio, and Miles enjoys his interplay with the band. There is also the incident from August, 1959, when police beat Miles outside the Village Vanguard: a cop, apparently irritated that a black man helped a white woman get a cab, told Miles to move on—this while Miles, the headliner, was taking a break on the sidewalk.
But what do either of those moments tell us? The former is that, as we know, Miles was one of the greats. The latter that, as we know, we live in a white supremacist society. And also that Francis gave up so much for Miles, and he was terrible to her. His sentiment over her in the movie, especially during a period when Cicely Tyson was doing her best to keep him healthy and sane, leaves an unpleasant taste, the sentimental egotism of the wife-beater.
The deepest and most important truth in the movie is that, once we hear the tape, it’s crap, it’s nothing. And Miles can’t play, he has no lip, no wind. The plot is presented as the thing that started his comeback, but there’s nothing about that process in the movie (nor is the intriguing mystery of what Miles and Stockhausen spent two days on in the studio explored, even though the idea is sitting right out there).
Instead, there is the weird, jarring conclusion. As the final credits roll, we see a fictionalized comeback era concert, with Cheadle as Miles on stage with a band of young musicians. The tune is some of Glasper’s original music and is decent. But then the camera pans, and we see that the contemporary Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock are also playing. Fiction and real life don’t collide, they implode, and for the musician who always moved on from what he had done, the past is literally cemented AS the present. Making this weirder and more jarring is that Cheadle is sporting a black leather vest with “#Socialmusic” on the back. This is a direct reference to Miles’ quote from the beginning of the movie, that what he made was social music. Totally true, but the marketing and branding are a clumsy way to conclude a look at one of the coolest of all cats.
(Two Notes: There is no music from Bitches Brew in the movie, Cheadle hinted during the Q&A that they only dropped in what they could get the rights for, and the movie’s release is at the moment set for sometime in early 2016).
– George Grella