Miles Davis is a beloved music icon whose influences are as current today as they were right before he died in 1991. Davis wrote his own autobiography. He left nothing that he wanted to say unsaid and clarified issues that others felt were unresolved. He continued to make music, transform himself, and move in the swirling musical currents up until his death. Two recordings released posthumously indicate Davis’ level of involvement in the music scene. His studio album Doo-Bop is influenced by the hip-hop culture and vice-versa. For the second release Miles had collaborated with Quincy Jones to create Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux for the 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival. If Davis had lived past his 65 years, he most likely would have continued to evolve with the flux and flow, stirring today’s greats and playing music with various artists as he stretched his musical palette and performance.
How does one suggest this about the great Miles Davis? Perhaps in a documentary or in a meat and potatoes historical film narrative about his life based on his autobiography. But such a straight-forward approach would most likely lose something in the translation and execution. Embracing an innovative spirit and moving out into the creative realms of grace, Don Cheadle decided not to make a bio-pic about Miles Davis, which would have been buried in a hackneyed historical archive or an easily dismissed continuum of Miles Davis’ films. Concentrating less on the demographic details of the man’s life and focusing more on the shades of his music and its import to Davis and musicians everywhere, Miles Ahead is Cheadle’s impressionistic, Davis-infused, hyper-scoped humorous drama about an arc of events in Davis’ life which did not specifically occur, but whose authentic flavor and feeling could have.
At its finest Cheadle’s work examines the themes throughout Davis’ life. It infers his artistic intentions. It suggests the unfolding drama about the changing jazz scene and Miles’ ineluctable impact on it. With consummate skill and technical genius, until his death, Davis was a seminal creator, the turning wheel at the crossroads of music style. In attempting to capture all this and more, in Miles Ahead, Cheadle reveals how his own maverick approach to conveying who the man was and is reflects inspiration from Miles Davis. Davis was the maverick among mavericks. He was an innovator guiding all stripes of music which at its heart was “social.”
Cheadle’s impressionistic, unique approach with Miles Ahead is a conceptualization borne out by an illustrious team in an uncharacteristically, un-studio-like way. Even the film’s funding which was cobbled, crowd-funded, and sourced to remain inviolate and uninfluenced by others who might have a different vision of what the film should feel like, is non-mainstream. Davis would have approved. As jazz riffs lift, plow down and then are taken up by craftsmen who blow into the winds and melodies of other musicians’ ebb and flow, so is the nature and feel of this film, which like riffs and strange rhythms sound and echo in one’s memory long after the screen credits roll.
The screenplay and story written by Steven Baigelman, Don Cheadle, Stephen J. Rievele (story), and Christopher Wilkenson (story), peel out an engaging wild ride intended to reveal more of the spirit of the man’s genius than what would have been indicated by a strict enumeration of the factual cant of his life: what he did, whom he played with, where he played. Indeed, if anyone has yet been able to suggest the soul, the psyche, the emotional grist of an individual, Don Cheadle and his production team have certainly attempted to elicit the Davis flair in this film which is extraordinary, “in-your-face,” surprising, and humorous.
The action flame-in blisters with briskly edited scenes of intensity that involve a hunt, a car chase, gunshots and fall back close-up of what looks to be a large, old-fashioned, reel-to-reel audio tape. The scene has been introduced with Cheadle’s whispy Miles-intentioned voice-over. He inspires us to come along for this dream-journey vision about Miles Davis. Then we arrive at what appears to be a fairly linear story line. Davis is in hiding. He has become a recluse who has not performed or “spoken” his craft for years. Cheadle inhabits Davis with raspy voice, walk, mannerisms, and look which Davis had in the waning years of his life.
Freelance Rolling Stone reporter Dave Brill (a credible performance by the always interesting Ewan McGregor), insinuates himself into Davis’ dilapidated townhouse to get an exclusive about why Miles has been incommunicado. Brill is overwhelmed to see the the master’s run-down condition including his squalid living arrangements. Davis is in a weakened physical state, caused by either a drug addiction or something else which has overpowered him and wrecked his emotional well being. Brill is shocked and we recognize that Brill is wondering how or why Davis’ musical genius has seem to vacate his being. During the course of their brusque encounter and Miles’ humorous, sardonic quips, Davis grudgingly accepts Brill into a more private context of his home in a quid pro quo for drugs. Brill is taken downstairs to the beautiful inner sanctum of Miles’ living space and studio, and it is there that the story-line further flashes back to Miles’ beginnings and his successes. This was before his other problems overwhelmed him. The film’s present sequences take place in the 1970s.
Through flashbacks and flashforwards up to the 1970s present with Brill and Davis, there is Miles’ thrilling music, unmistakable, riveting. Interspersed are the flashbacks of club scenes, his relationship with Frances Taylor (the accomplished Emayatzy Corinealdi), scenes where they express their love for each other, their marriage and eventual split. There are Davis’ flashes of his haunting guilt about her in the present with Brill. These intrigues are highlighted by snatches of events that did occur and are part of Miles’ story.
One that is particularly unsettling occurs when Davis is threatened and beaten by a cop when he smokes a cigarette outside a club during his break. The cop accuses him of loitering and doesn’t believe his explanation. The upshot of the event is that he is jailed, the victim of racism and police brutality. Francis comes to his rescue, but we are reminded that though this occurs “long ago,” the same racially inspired brutality occurs today, 2015. Davis was a celebrity whose money and friends protected him. For other black men without a celebrity pedigree, money and friends in high places, the story is very different; their brutalization sometimes ends in death.
Cheadle’s inclusion of this incident underscores vital themes about racism, the effort it takes to achieve when one is rendered “inferior,” and a reminder that racist attitudes still prevail today in a continuous power struggle that places a proportionately higher number of black men in jail. Another theme is one that is incipient in the symbolic title. Miles was “ahead,” far beyond everyone else in his music style and evolution; he is treasure, a one-of-a-kind who can never be surpassed, and it is pointless for musicians to compare themselves to him. Also, he was far beyond others of his race in social stature which gave him exceptional privileges that a majority of individuals, both black and white, could only dream of. Indeed, the irony was that unless one recognized him, his skin color spoke louder than his genius. But that racist-deemed “curse” was part of who he was. Though it was an obstacle in the culture, it drove him to excel beyond his and other’s expectations. Then and now, those who appreciated and appreciate his music and genius today are “colorblind.” Miles transcended his time and transcends all time with his spirit, with his artistry.
Cheadle has these and other flashbacks unspool to different points in his life. He abruptly cuts the emotional events Miles experiences. He collides them from present to past to present with Brill and Miles in his townhouse in the 1970s. The present sequences revolve around the drama that Davis has created a session tape during his five year hiatus from playing. With this tape he implies he has created something fresh and completely different, but he is loath to release it to the studio.
During the 1970s present sequence, one of Davis’ women friends has brought in a crowd of people for a party, a prior arrangement they made. In the crowd is a craven predator (a sleazy Michael Stuhlbarg), from the studio and his henchmen who are looking to steal Davis’ session tape. There is talk of broken promises and contracts and suddenly Brill and Davis are in a car chase and the film arrives back at the beginning with gun shots. Is Miles session tape turned over to the studio? What does it sound like? Will his fans accept the new Miles or want more of the past iterations of Miles Davis? What happens when he attempts to play for Brill?
Cheadle effects an interesting conclusion answering these questions. In the final shots Miles Davis plays with his band in 2015. It is symbolic and illuminates that Davis’ music in many forms continues and is unending. This is appropriate for the film’s conclusion. Davis is a legend and one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. Examples of Davis’ contributions to current music are everywhere. Miles Ahead is Cheadle’s loving tribute to the master composer, trumpeter, indelible craftsman. It’s a fascinating journey into the intuited vibes of an amazing man told in an unconventional way. It is a zany and ferocious way that Davis himself probably would have thought ingenious. For this and too many reasons to count, including the fabulous music, this is a film that shouldn’t be missed.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=14462422] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=1446242361]