April 25, 2016

'Miles Ahead' Never Quite Captures the Heart and Soul of the Music Behind the Troubled Man

I discovered Miles Davis in college. A group of us were sitting in one of the student buildings at the University of Central Florida talking about music among other things, when a classmate of mine mentioned Miles Davis’s landmark album Kind of Blue. I had never heard of Miles Davis before, nor had I listened to Kind of Blue. A few weeks later, I was back home visiting my parents, and there in my old bedroom was a beat-up copy of Kind of Blue. My dad had found it in the backseat of a repossessed car at his workplace, and thought I might be interested.

It’s not clear in my mind when I first played the record. What is clear, what comes back to me every time I listen to Kind of Blue, are memories of reading novels in the university library (like any good English major) into the wee hours of the morning with the soulful, melancholy, deliriously cool music of Miles Davis providing the soundtrack via headphones. Miles Davis did more to mature my music taste than practically any other musician, and I still love to disappear into his music, which comes alive at night in a dimly lit room with a glass of wine and good conversation. It speaks without words, and that is the most powerful music there is.

In Miles Ahead, director-star Don Cheadle delves into that vortex of madness that so often accompanies artistic genius. Miles Davis was plagued with his share of demons, and the film wants to expose those demons with vivid ferocity. The movie jostles between the Miles Davis of 1980—forlorn, haggard, loopy, reclusive—and the Miles Davis of the 1960s, still eccentric but much more productive and hopeful about his career. 

In one scene circa 1980, Davis is listening to a radio retrospective of his music, and the moment is punctuated by the nagging fear that he no longer resembles the legend being lauded on the airwaves. Plagued with anxieties and suspicions, addicted to drugs, unable to perform, Davis is no longer the person they’re talking about. He’s worse than dead. A Columbia Records flunky even quips, “He’s more profitable dead than alive.” But Miles cannot wrap his brain around all this sound and fury. He’s still riffing in his mind on some endless jazz trip, and feebly trying to figure out the calculating world around him.

Much of the film involves a Rolling Stone interview conducted by a music writer named Dave Braden (played by Ewan McGregor), a particularly sleazy and opportunistic cad who’ll do just about anything to get at Davis. When we meet Braden, he’s sporting a shiner from his ex-wife’s boyfriend only to be clocked again by Davis himself, who resents being hounded by the press. Braden finagles his way inside Miles’s New York apartment anyway, is chased at gunpoint, and finally establishes some trust with Davis by offering to score him some really good coke. (That’s after they make quite a scene at Columbia, with the raspy Davis waving a gun at various music executives while one sly suit tries to pacify him with boxing tickets and money.)

Miles Ahead is well-made. Cheadle fancies little devices to help him switch between present-day (1980) Davis and past (1960s) Davis. We see shards of a romance between Miles and Frances (played with guts by Emayatzy Corinealdi), one of the loves of his life. (The film makes no mention of Davis’s equally long relationship with actress Cicely Tyson, who pulled him into sobriety.) But Cheadle gets caught up in this idea of Miles Davis the mad genius, spouting nonsensical poetry as he’s being swindled and coddled and patronized by various people, including his fair-weather Rolling Stone chum Dave Braden. (I’ve never detested Ewan McGregor before; but everything about this guy, from his stringy hair to his Scottish brogue oozes with calculation and hucksterism.) 

As for Don Cheadle, there’s something labored about his performance (as good as it is) and his movie, as though we’re being forced to suffer through the worst of Miles Davis so we can have a deeper appreciation for the best of him. Sure, I can accept that Miles Davis was crazy at times, and he was apparently abusive to his wife, who finally walked out on him. But Miles Ahead drifts by like a fever dream, never fully grasping the weight of either Davis’s talent or his tortured life. Cheadle works so hard to imitate the raspy whisky voice and the mindless pap about “social music” that he loses something in the process: the fact that when you listen to Kind of Blue (and number of other Davis records), you’re transported, you’re lifted to some kind of other-worldly cocktail party in the sky.

When we hear the music, it’s no longer about the man and his demons. The movie makes it clear that in the middle of recording sessions Davis was probably drinking or getting high or beating up on his devoted wife. He’s no saint. But we don’t necessarily need to know this. What matters about jazz, about Miles Davis, is the mood the music creates, and that mood runs deep and eternal, like moonlight or like a long-remembered dream. Miles Ahead feels almost airily insignificant in its texture: It mistakes its own obsession with the musician’s tortured existence for an appreciation of the depth and beauty of the music itself. But Cheadle doesn’t revel in this music, or he doesn’t appear to anyway. He appears to be conducting an acting experiment, a test of his own skills, rather than an exploration of that magical concoction being created in-between flights of madness and self-destruction. 

Like Tennessee Williams, who extinguished himself as fast as he could with booze and pills and bad relationships, Miles Davis was too much to last for too long: but what he gave us is alive and pulsating and vervy and thrilling. This is a decent biopic, but I don’t think it’s the one Miles Davis deserves. Movies are like jazz in their own way, and there’s something self-defeating about a biopic applied to someone like Miles Davis, like trying to write down the notes of a song and memorize them, so you can play them the same way every time. That was never the point with Miles Davis, or with jazz.

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