Don Cheadle, director & co-script w/Steven Baigelman
Starring: Don Cheadle (Miles Davis), Emayatzy Corinealdi (Frances Taylor), Ewan McGregor (Dave Braden), Michael Stuhlbarg (Harper Hamilton), Keith Stanfield (Junior)
Don Cheadle took on the impossible when he chose to make a film about Miles Davis. How can you possibly do justice to a mercurial musician who was a key figure in the revolutionary bebop era of the late ‘40s, helped to invent the “cool” sound of the sophisticated ‘50s, shifted into the bluesier hard bop of the late ‘50s, changed jazz forever by moving from chord progressions to modal modes with his classic Kind of Blue 1959 masterpiece and then reinvented the music twice more with the jazz rock classic Bitches Brew in 1968 and the jazz funk beats of his mid-‘70s band? Phew—that’s quite a sentence and it only suggests how many “Mileses” there were in jazz from ’46 through ’76. And Miles lived to be 65.
Move from music into the man. Many people don’t know that Miles was born to a wealthy African-American mid-west family and actually came to New York to study at Julliard. Even before dropping out of Julliard, Miles was learning more about music and life from Charlie “Bird” Parker and other be-boppers. His speech became “ghetto,” guttural and slangy—very different from how he was raised. Miles quickly adapted to the jazz life of the time, which included the usual riffs: women, booze and drugs. As a figure, Miles cut it both ways, playing like a tough guy from the ghetto—and he was a good boxer—while still having the musical training of someone who had actually studied composition.
OK—back to Mr. Cheadle and Miles Ahead, his passion project of a film. How do you get across the many contradictions and lives of Miles Davis in one film? Of course, you can’t, so Cheadle came up with a way of providing the essence of Miles by creating a drama that could have taken place in a couple of days in New York in 1980, while showing, in counterpoint, flashbacks of his life and music in better times in the late 1950s.
It was a radical decision, made even crazier by centering the narrative on the period when Miles had stopped making music for years and was slowly building up to his famous comeback. Literally, 1975 through to the beginning of 1980 is the only time that Miles didn’t perform from when he was 18 until his death at 65.
It does seem counter-intuitive to place Miles right at the one time when he wasn’t being a genius musician.
Cheadle raises the stakes further by creating a tale of Miles and a would-be Rolling Stone journalist scoring drugs, trying to get money from his label Columbia Records and attending a crazy party back at his own house. The plot, such as it is, involves sinister mobster-types stealing a tape of Miles’ new music, which they intend to sell to Columbia. Miles and his new journalist buddy Dave Braden have to get it back, which involves gun play and a couple of car chases.
Working against this B movie plot are scenes set in the late ‘50s when Miles successfully romanced Frances, a beautiful dancer, while creating the gorgeous music in the albums Sketches of Spain and Kind of Blue. Through his relationship with Frances, you see Miles’ softer, more sophisticated side—but the rocky conclusion of their marriage hints at the violence that is also at the core of Davis’ psyche.
Miles Ahead is a brave attempt to depict the chaotic life of a great artist who was able to create brilliant music despite the anarchy and often-sordid drama in his own life. Don Cheadle is superb as Miles Davis—certainly the biggest plus in the film. Miles Ahead was never going to please everyone but it’s a crazy ride that is certainly worth taking.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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