Wednesday, May 4, 2016

IN THE KEY OF MILES: a review of "Miles Ahead"

Story by Steven Baigleman & Don Cheadle and Steven J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson
Screenplay by Steven Baigleman & Don Cheadle
Directed by Don Cheadle
**** (four stars)

I have met Miles Davis.

Yes, it is true, dear readers. Long ago, I did indeed meet Miles Davis. I shook his hand as well, while hearing that unmistakable quiet yet firm rasp in his voice. I was 17 years old and the meeting occurred backstage a short while after a performance at the Chicago theater. And even so, the whole exchange was quite lost upon me at the time, as in my mind, Miles Davis represented my Father's music and for my Father, this meeting was a lifetime in the making.

For me, as I have grown older and have incorporated Miles Davis' unprecedented music and artistry into my life, I am stunned that I actually met the man himself. Considering his legendary mercurial and often impenetrable persona, I am further surprised to realize that my memory of the backstage visit was certainly brief but warm and for that matter, I can say that I have never seen my Father so excitedly nervous in my life, before or since, as he was at long last having a moment with a lifelong hero. There was no sense of disappointment or uncomfortableness about the visit and as I look back, now armed with a greater knowledge concerning what I understand about the man as well as the urgent and restless creativity and inventiveness within the music itself, I have often wondered how his mind actually functioned, not only regarding his art, but his relationship with those who admired and revered him, placing him upon the pedestal of icon as well as those who existed and persisted as vultures.

Don Cheadle's "Miles Ahead," which he co-wrote, directs and gives a performance of sensational grit and pathos in the title role, IS NOT a biopic. Defiantly, audaciously and without any sense of concern to any potential detractors or polarization, the film is a wildly entertaining plus deeply impressionistic and passionate exploration of Miles Davis and for my sense and sensibilities, it is as courageous as they come. In fact, I felt it to be a film that often feels to exist a few minutes ahead of most films being released these days due to its overall poetic nature merged with its vibrancy. As impressed as I often was, the film is indeed quite the head-scratcher as well, a quality that certainly stopped me from sailing over the top with my impression of it. But, that is a minor quibble for a film that is demonstrably breaking the rules and charting its own creative path...much like the music of Miles Davis itself.

"Miles Ahead" proudly eschews all biopic cliches and trappings as well as the "cradle to grave" narrative structure by utilizing a completely non-linear narrative all set within a period near the end of Miles Davis' (played by Don Cheadle) five year, self-imposed sabbatical and exile from public life, studio recording and live performances. While extending a toe back into creating new music, Davis is at first pursued and then joined by Rolling Stone reporter Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), initially for an interview and soon, on a car chase and bullet ridden hunt for a set of Davis' stolen master tapes of new material. And through the feverish pursuit, Miles ventures back and forth from the intense solitude of his isolation and out into the larger world as well as between the present day and his memories, all the while attempting how to move forwards in his art and life unequivocally upon his own terms.

For those of you who are looking for a film that will provide you with a new insight into the world and therefore, the motivations and inner life of Miles Davis, Don Cheadle's "Miles Ahead" is demonstrably not that film. Well...not in any traditional sense. What Cheadle has created is worlds away from something like Director Taylor Hackford's "Ray" (2004) and don't worry, it is not as all out bonkers as Director Ken Russell's Franz Liszt fantasia "Lisztomania" (1975). "Miles Ahead" is much more in the similar vein as the likes of Director Bill Pohlad's outstanding "Love And Mercy" (2015), based upon the life of Brian Wilson or better yet, Writer/Director Todd Haynes' truly forward thinking "I'm Not There" (2008), his nearly impenetrable, non-linear exploration of the music and various personas of Bob Dylan, and perhaps even more fittingly, Director Michael Mann's "Ali" (2001), his more overtly abstract exploration of Muhammad Ali.

For a figure as inscrutable as Miles Davis, it is more than fitting to me that he deserves an equally inscrutable film. "Miles Ahead" is precisely one film that throws the rule book out of the window and flies confidently by its own creative whims and excursions, defying all expectations and forcing the audience to catch up to it and conform to its will in order to fully enjoy and comprehend. In that regard, Cheadle's film is a triumph. Often electrifying in its energy and swaggering style, Cheadle utilizes the figure of Miles Davis to somehow bridge the gap between the esoteric art film and ruthless Blaxploitation. It is not only as if we are seeing a film that the real Miles Davis may have enjoyed viewing, it is the type of film that Miles Davis could possibly have made himself about himself.

For the matter of discovering any insight into the personality and persona of Miles Davis, I felt that it was deeply intriguing that Cheadle chose to focus his portrait within a period during which this artist was not being creative, therefore adding to the impressionistic style of the film itself, and making the experience, which sees more than its share of action, a decidedly cerebral journey. In many ways, the entire film works as a metaphor, or a series of metaphors, in which the iconography of Davis' life and persona congeal to create an amalgamation of symbols and signposts which then build up the film's drama and character portrait, which we are then invited and challenged to work out for ourselves. Even Miles Davis' music, which is featured wall-to-wall upon the film's soundtrack alongside a score by Composer Robert Glasper, also provides signals as to Miles Davis' state of mind throughout this unorthodox motion picture.

To me, it felt that Don Cheadle used "Miles Ahead" to extend beyond his primary subject in order to explore the idea of the artist's perception of himself, his successes and failures versus the perception the fans and critics have of him and his work. In one terrific sequence early in the film, Miles Davis, ensconced within his chaotically arranged abode--a presentation that houses shades of Howard Hughes combined with Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941)--hears a radio program on which the host professes his adoration over Davis's seminal "Kind Of Blue" (released August 17, 1959). Miles, fitfully irritated, then calls the radio station and admonishes the host, exclaiming that the album never met his own standards. As the film continues, it could be inferred, that perhaps "Sketches Of Spain" (released July 18, 1960) was the album on which Davis felt he had possibly hit his creative zenith, due to sequences where Cheadle lovingly depicts the recording sessions and Davis' collaboration with Gil Evans (played by Jeffrey Grover). With this aspect about the film in place, I wondered if all of the running around after the stolen master tapes was essentially a metaphor for the music itself that Miles Davis may have been chasing inside of his artistic spirit during his five years away from the public eye. The music. Just think about it for a moment. Present yet elusive. Simultaneously within and just this far out of his grasp.

Furthermore, Cheadle spends a large portion of "Miles Ahead" regarding Davis' turbulent eight year relationship with his first wife, dancer Frances Taylor (played by Emayatzy Corinealdi), the figure who adorns the cover of Davis' "Someday My Prince Will Come" (released December 11, 1961). Certainly, we witness a relationship of tenderness, sexuality, and romance but also one that was fraught with tension, obsession, infidelity and abuse. Even as we are presented with a domestic drama, to me, the marriage also functioned as a possible metaphor as it felt that Cheadle is presenting Frances as the love of Miles Davis' life both literally and figuratively.

If Frances functions as Davis' muse, it would seem that in the world of "Miles Ahead," we are again witness to the tension that exists within the artistic process as Miles Davis attempts to bend that ever elusive sense of inspiration itself to his will...something all creative individuals will know and understand is often filled with frustration. Inspiration arrives when it wishes. As much as we attempt to force it into existence, the harder it is for inspiration to make its presence known, And even when it does arrive, it is nearly impossible to tame. In doing so, "Miles Ahead" builds and becomes an astute story of power and control, which of course, leads me and the film into the concept of artistic autonomy.

It felt more than fitting to me that I have now seen this film after the tragic death of Prince, even though the film was made long before his passing. Not only was Prince once friends and recorded and performed with Miles Davis, Prince is now heralded as a figure who spent a large portion of his career being an advocate for artists' rights and the control of one's own master tapes, publishing rights, and intellectual property, all of which he attained near the end of his life yet Davis did not. The pursuit of the master tapes within "Miles Ahead" speaks directly to this battle as Davis is often depicted in heated and even violent contact with record label executives as well as with the film's primary antagonist, Harper Hamilton (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), a sleazy agent/producer unctuously guiding the career of young trumpeter Junior (played by Keith Stanfield), who may also serve as a representative of Davis himself in his early days as a younger, greener musician on the rise.

As previously stated, and in all areas of the film as I have described for you, Don Cheadle utilizes the music of Miles Davis to underscore and serve as signals to Davis' deteriorating mental state. Throughout the film, just watch Davis' mood alter when the music within the film grows more lush compared to other sequences featuring the agitated urgency of Davis's drug fueled, fever dream fury during his post "Bitches Brew" (released March 30, 1970) period of the early '70's. Also, I do not think it to be unintentional of the frequent boxing metaphors within the film, most certainly referring to Davis' penchant for boxing matches plus his own rock music driven yet devotional album "Jack Johnson" (released February 24, 1971).

Returning to Prince for a moment, he once described himself as feeling like Jack Johnson during his lengthy battles with the record industry and Warner Brothers in particular. With that comparison in mind, I can only imagine that Miles Davis quite possibly felt exactly the same with regards to the music he wished to create, in addition to how much music he wished to create, as well as when he would and even would not choose to record and/or perform. Miles Davis was the sole architect of his art, life and destiny, a figure who refused to be pigeon-holed or hemmed in by any constraints other than whatever he placed upon himself. He could not be contained and whenever one tried, beware his wrath. And still, even creative geniuses house their own specialized brand of insecurities, fears and demons.

Quite possibly the most audacious move Don Cheadle could have exhibited with "Miles Ahead" was to load his film with a series of of fictionalized characters and events in what many would expect to serve as a dramatic musical biopic. From what I understand, Ewan McGregor's Rolling Stone reporter character never existed in real life. I cannot find any mention of a real world Harper Hamilton anywhere. And I am more than certain that the real Miles Davis was never involved in car chases nor did he fire a gun in the offices of his record label and further shake down record executives. In essence, the character of Miles Davis that Cheadle envisions is one of combined artistic genius and streetwise gangster. So, for all of this fantasy, it would be more than understandable for you to ask of me just what the overall point of "Miles Ahead" happens to be and how I could have enjoyed it to the degree that I did when much of the content was indeed fabricated.

To that, all I can offer you is what I have previously stated: the film is an impression of Miles Davis, not a biography, a technique which gives Don Cheadle a healthy artistic license to just allow his creativity to fly freely and with a strong sense of command over such a difficult subject and a dizzingly complex execution that is as dynamic as it is often surreal. In a way, it is possible that the entirety of "Miles Ahead" takes place deep within the confines of Davis' own mind, with the fictionalized characters all serving as metaphorical stand-ins for the real figures he was in contact with.

In fact, what is Miles Davis' cluttered, wholly disorganized home in the film other than a representation of his mind, crippled by drugs and a body fraught with injuries from chronic hip pain? Perhaps his isolation houses not only his memories, regrets and ghosts but an even more frightening and mounting sense of insecurity and doubt, something the world at large would never see but nonetheless a private pain which threatens to consume him. Truthfully, who would possibly be more insecure than Miles  Davis  himself for no one else would be more acutely aware of his own talents, artistry and overall legacy than himself. Therefore, the five years away and out of sight, would certainly present itself to posses considerable soul searching threatened by those demons that woud plague any artist: Is my talent still with me or has it evaporated? Am I able to do it all over again? Am I able to create anything new? Do I have anything else left to say?

The always wonderful Don Cheadle superbly emerges i as a formidable triple threat as actor, co-writer and director. Cheadle is nothing less than fearless behind and in front of the camera, demonstrating that no one else could have made this specific material about this idiosyncratic artist within this fashion. As an actor, Cheadle delivers what just may be his finest and most immersive performance with his unquestionable bravado--which feels like an extension of his excellent work in Director Kasi Lemmons "Talk To Me" (2007)-- combined with his lithe, athletic frame (as that of a boxer ready to strike). Eerily, Cheadle has indeed nailed the iconic rasp of Miles Davis' voice, which often left me questioning if I was hearing archived Davis interview footage instead of the actor. But, the performance is truly set deeply within Cheadle's eyes which always convey the drive, determination, rage, sorrow and of course, a haunted quality that is riveting to behold. By encapsulating the outer physicality with an intense interior dimension, Don Cheadle's performance transcends mere imitation and becomes a work of fury and grace, much like the music of Miles Davis.

In 1991, I was 22 years old. I had graduated from college and had then decided to live in my adopted city of Madison, WI as I began taking my first steps into making my way in the world. For a time, I worked part-time at a record store for several months and on the early morning of Sunday, September 28th, I ventured into the Walgreen's' near the store before we opened to peruse the morning papers. Picking up the Chicago Tribune, and discovering tucked into a lower portion of the front page was the news that Miles Davis had passed away at the age of 65 from the combined effects of a stroke,pneumonia and respiratory failure. While the magnitude of the news was lost upon me at the tie, my thoughts immediately turned to my Father who treasured Miles Davis above all others of his musical heroes. And yet, because of what Davis had meant to my Father, I was aware that music had lost someone of towering significance so much so that I did feel it to be more than odd that the news was relegated to a less prominent place on the front section of the Sunday papers.

What has been proven to me is that the legacy of Miles Davis since his passing has only increased with a slew of lovingly presented posthumous releases that treat the man and his music with the reverence it deserves. Over the same years, I have found myself becoming more and more immersed within the man's musical legacy, all the while learning and slowly beginning to understand precisely what had touched my Father so powerfully. I have seen music articles discussing Miles Davis' legacy only increase in frequency and his name has not evaporated into the recesses of the past as artists still invoke his name to this day. In the film's stunning final sequence, which I will not reveal, Cheadle fully addresses this reality by suggesting that the presence of Miles Davis is everlasting through all those who choose to listen and most especially within the artists themselves: those who were his contemporaries who remain creative and exploratory and to the younger musicians who currently defy classification. In doing so, it is as if Miles Davis is still  here with us, never relegated to past but one who remains so powerfully present.

As Davis states to Brill near the opening of the film, "If you're gonna tell a story, then come with some attitude." Don Cheadle's "Miles Ahead" has attitude to burn but also substance and high flying, improvisational artistry that flows through the triumphs and turbulence, the memories and madness of Miles Davis with dynamic aplomb. With the summer movie season behemoths just itching to burst out of the gate and head straight into the theaters and the top of the box office charts, a film like "Miles Ahead" is doomed to become lost in the shuffle. In fact, in my home city, it is already nearly on its way out of town. But, again, and as I have implored of you repeatedly upon this site, we cannot allow films of such high quality to become forever lost in the shuffle and therefore ignored, especiall when you have one that is as inventive and artful as what  Don Cheadle has so passionately achieved.

Miles Davis famously dismissed the term "jazz" in favor of describing his art as "social music." And what could be more social than to take in this film and find ourselves lost in discussion, interpretation and the music of the eternal Miles Davis.


  1. I find myself lost in your story, the background to the review. It is fascinating to discover how one exceptional artest continues to leave an impression. Thank you Scott Collins for sharing your gift of language

  2. Hey....THANKS SO MUCH for taking the time to read this posting. It is never lost upon me when anyone bothers to read anything that I've written. And when the response is like yours, it's just wonderful!

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