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Nerdlocker Movie Review: Miles Ahead


What can I say about my instrument? It’s my voice, that’s what it is.” –Miles Davis

Miles Davis was a jazz legend like no other. A supremely talented musician/composer/bandleader and the king of cool, he was a unique individual with an insatiable appetite to play and to push boundaries. He experimented with a variety of styles and sounds, and his music was constantly evolving. In the mid-1940s, Davis graduated high school and moved to NYC to attend the Juilliard School of Music. A skilled trumpeter, he started playing in Harlem night clubs and picked up a great deal of knowledge from local musicians to go along with his classroom education. Over the next 30 years, he would dabble in bebop, cool jazz, modal jazz, third stream, post-bop, and jazz fusion with electronic accompaniment, always playing with passion. Davis is one of the most revered and influential talents in jazz history. His 1959 album, Kind of Blue, is the best selling jazz record of all-time (4x Platinum).

In 1975, the music stopped. For at least four years, Davis quit recording and performing altogether, his own explanation was that he stopped hearing the music. “It just stopped and all of a sudden I couldn’t play anything,” he said in Kenneth Levi’s 1986 documentary, Miles Ahead: The Music of Miles Davis. In his 1990 autobiography, Davis elaborated on the period: “From 1975 to early 1980 I didn’t pick up my horn.” “Mostly during those four or five years… I just took a lot of cocaine (about $500 a day at one point).” “I was also addicted to pills, like Percodan and Seconal, and I was drinking a lot… mostly I snorted coke.”

The majority of Miles Ahead takes place during this ‘silent period.’ The new film (not to be confused with the aforementioned doc, both named after the 1957 album) is a passion project for Don Cheadle. He co-wrote the script, directed the film, and stars as Miles Davis. He spent four years voraciously learning how to play trumpet, and by all accounts, he’s pretty damn good. The movie is a riff on Davis, not a full-on biopic. As the poster’s tagline suggests, it’s “His story. With a little improvisation.” It isn’t a story that happened, but one that could’ve happened, set in a specific place and time. Cheadle isn’t overly concerned with facts as long as the movie feels true and captures the essence of its subject.

“If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude, man,” Cheadle says in the trailer. That he does, both in front of the camera and behind it. He’s magnetic as Davis, embodying the iconic figure with an icy charisma. Everything from his body language and hair, to the colorful robes and decadent clothes he wears, feels authentic. He nails the details like Davis’ embouchure and technique, and he played all of the trumpet solos himself to get the movements right (though the music was swapped out with real Davis recordings). The movie takes place during his hiatus but flashes back to him performing in the 1950s.

For better or worse, Miles Ahead is a Miles Davis gangster movie; a cinematic urban legend of sorts. It finds Davis holed up in his Manhattan apartment recovering from different ailments and going hard on substances. Ewan McGregor plays Dave, a Rolling Stone reporter who wants to write a piece on “Jazz’s Howard Hughes” (referring to Davis’ reclusive nature at the time). It becomes a buddy film of sorts, and when one of Miles’ session tapes is stolen, they go on a gun-toting mission to recover it. McGregor’s character is entirely fictional, but he and Cheadle team well together, and according to Don Cheadle, a white co-star was necessary to get the movie made. Here’s an excerpt of David Frear’s interview with Cheadle in Rolling Stone (check out the full interview here):

And that necessitated bringing a fictional, handsome Rolling Stone journalist named Dave into the story, right? Which, by the way, thank you.
You’re welcome, Dave [laughs]. There were a few different journalists who did try to interview him during this time, but there were some real-world concerns we needed to deal with and that necessitated bringing the character in.

Such as?
Such as to get this film financed, we needed a white co-star. These are issues that come into play. And until Ewan came on, until we had cast the proper white co-star, there was no Miles Davis movie. There was no Miles Ahead. The family had been trying to make this movie for years, and we straight-up told them, “We need a white co-star. We need to tell this story, in order to get this money, with a white male lead.” That means something.

My hat’s off to Ewan, who, you know, didn’t look at this role and go, “It’s like a second fiddle.” Or: “I’m carrying Miles’ water.” He really found a way to really make this his story as much as it is Miles’ story. They kind of go off in this gangster buddy pic and do their heist movie.

You do flip the script by making the white guy a sidekick to the black character, instead of what you usually see. But that’s incredibly depressing.
That’s the reality. It’s called moviemaking.

Damn. Crazy, but unsurprising. It’s a shame that in this day and age, the rights to tell the story of one of the most talented, revolutionary, outlandish characters in jazz history–with a filmmaker/actor of Cheadle’s caliber attached (a dream pairing of actor/subject up there with Jamie Foxx/Ray Charles)–isn’t enough to secure motion picture financing without the inclusion of a white co-star (one playing a fictional character at that). I suppose Cheadle could’ve gone a different route. He could’ve made a movie about Miles’ time working with Gil Evans, Canadian jazz pianist, arranger, composer, and all-around cool cat (I would watch that movie). That’s not the film he wanted to make though. He made it clear in his Rolling Stone interview that he didn’t want to make anything cookie cutter, nothing remotely like a biopic. It was his idea to make it a gangster buddy pic heist movie, and he’s the one that sold the Davis family on it. I gotta say, it’s kind of a crazy idea and it’s cool to see it come to fruition. I enjoyed the movie, and while I’m of the opinion that Davis’ life provides ample material to make an excellent film without resorting to fiction or made up characters, I’m not about to discount Cheadle’s vision because he wanted to try something different or because he did what he had to do to get the film made. (Hate the game, not the player.) I appreciate the fresh take. Miles Ahead is not the quintessential Miles Davis movie but it works as an entertaining side piece. If you’re unfamiliar with Davis (or if the only record of his you’ve heard is Kind of Blue), I recommend watching a documentary or two about him–with actual footage of him talking and playing–prior to seeing the movie. That way you can learn about a great musician and fully appreciate Don Cheadle’s uncanny depiction of this complex individual.

3.5 out of 5 Nerdskulls

Miles Ahead is now playing in theaters nationwide.

Trailer:

Mark Obenhaus’ 1986 documentary, Miles Ahead: The Music of Miles Davis:

Stills:

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Salty Winters once said, "Everything I learned I learned from the movies." He was quoting Audrey Hepburn.