I was excited about this movie. Ever since I first saw Don Cheadle in Boogie Nights 20 years ago, I’ve felt he’s one of the top five actors around. After seeing his performance in this, I still feel the same. It’s Cheadle’s first time behind the camera, and that’s where the problem lies. He gives us a rather uneven movie, that’s a mostly fictional account of Miles Davis’ life.
Cheadle has been working on getting this movie made for over a decade (with the blessing of the Davis family), and at one point did some crowdfunding. He co-wrote it, produced, and even co-composed. Unfortunately, the scene he has at the end of the closing credits (he’s playing with an all-star band that includes Gary Clark, Jr — one of the best young blues/rock guitarists around, Esperanza Spalding, my favorite jazz bassist, and one-time Davis keyboardist — the legendary Herbie Hancock. I would’ve rather seen that concert than this movie).
My girlfriend said when we were leaving, that she loved the scene where Davis talked about his musical influences, including Chopin. She told me, “I could’ve watched two hours of that.”
I agreed. Instead, we got car chases, shoot-outs, and with Ewan McGregor playing a Rolling Stone reporter/sidekick, it felt like a buddy picture.
The movie doesn’t tell you Davis was born to an affluent family in 1926 (his dad was a dentist), or that he went to Julliard, and played music professionally while still in high school. It leaves out his first girlfriend (whom he had two kids with), or his heroin addiction. We get the five year period in which he lived like a hermit in a messy New York apartment, bugging Columbia for $20,000 he felt he was owed (in real life, Columbia had him on retainer and continued giving him money, which enabled him to live without making new recordings). But perhaps since everyone thought it was so cool when Ice Cube busted up a record label’s office with a baseball bat, Cheadle needed to up the ante by shooting up the Columbia offices and stealing money from an A&R guy in a suit (that never happened, but perhaps Cheadle felt the movie needed more excitement than snorting coke and sleeping with groupies provided).
It has got to be tough for filmmakers, because they don’t want to make the bio-pics that come across like Ray or Walk the Line. But when you do them similar to the recent James Brown one (the disappointing Get on Up), the flashbacks tend to be more interesting, and want us to learn more about what inspired the artist. Davis was somebody that was so innovative, and created new genres of jazz. I remember as a kid wondering why a rock ‘n roll friend of mine had the “Bitches Brew” album in his collection (the rock-jazz fusion album that led him to many shows at the Fillmore with the ‘60s rockers and getting him, controversially, into the “rock and roll” hall of fame).
The supporting cast provides mixed results. Michael Stuhlbarg, the best actor working that isn’t a household name, is a bit too much of a cartoon-character as the sleazy suit that tries stealing session tapes Davis refuses to release.
Frances Taylor, the wife of 10 years that left a promising dance career upon Davis’ insistence, is played wonderfully by Emayatzy Corinealdi. It’s nice that she was a fully realized character and not just somebody that screams and throws bottles at his head. Hopefully this is a break-out role for her. They cleverly go to her flashbacks every time Davis sees her picture on his album “Someday My Prince Will Come.”
Once Dave Braden (McGregor) convinces Davis to let him tell his story, he soon becomes his driver. It helps that he knows the best place to score blow.
Lakeith Lee Stanfield (Short Term 12) played a young, up-and-coming trumpeter. One great scene has Davis going into a club he’s rehearsing at, and we watch as his eyes widen and his fingers twitch. More of that was needed, instead of a series of groovy outfits, necklaces, and the raspy voice and evil stare of Davis. There comes a point when we yearn to know more about what inspires him. This is a guy who played with all the jazz greats (Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, to name a few). So why are we watching him punch people out left and right? Yeah, yeah, he was a huge boxing fan (his 1970 album is called “Jack Johnson”). Yet we only see a glimpse of him watching the famous Johnson/Jefferies fight, and occasionally punching a heavy bag. That is hardly satisfying to the moviegoer, even if that’s how he lived during his five year hiatus from making music.
There’s one moment where we get a glimpse of the muse that Frances is. They make love, and as she gets up and dances by the bed, he leaves the room. She’s a bit shocked, and walks into the other room where he’s picked up his trumpet. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if he’s composing a piece of music inspired by her, or he just grew bored.
The few real life elements the movie contains are terrific. We see the time Davis is arrested, after escorting a blonde to a taxi. A cop is telling him not to loiter, and doesn’t care that it’s his band performing in the club. He’s beaten and bloodied, before being taken to jail. It was a thousand times more authentic than the bogus scenes we had of police brutality in Straight Outta Compton.
An example of why the movie needed more of the real life scenes, is an early review I saw on this movie. A critic speculates Davis got his raspy whisper of a voice due to the amount he smokes. Sure, there are very few scenes where he didn’t have a cigarette dangling from his lips, but it was actually a time early in his career when he had polyps removed from his larynx. He was told not to talk for 10 days, and his temper led him into a shouting match with somebody. Davis said his voice was never the same after that.
Jazz films don’t usually do well at the box office. Sure, Whiplash was great. And Clint Eastwood did a decent job with Bird. I barely remember Lady Sings the Blues, but those last two films dealt with the caricature drug-addicted musical genius. Perhaps Cheadle was trying hard to avoid those tropes. Instead, we get a character so thoroughly unlikable, we’re never really rooting for him. And, like the James Brown pic, they only show one domestic violence incident, when there were many with both these musicians; perhaps the filmmakers knew that would make us hate them.
A movie about this legend should be more engaging. It’s almost like Cheadle took the character Davis played in an episode of Miami Vice, and made a movie about that drug dealing pimp instead. Watching self-destructive behavior gets tiresome quick. I was yearning for scenes like the one that shows Davis in the studio working on Sketches of Spain, and giving advice to the musicians around him. It reminded me of the few good scenes in Love & Mercy, in which Brian Wilson is working his magic on Pet Sounds.
Also, after The End of the Tour and now Miles Ahead — we don’t need another movie that uses the annoying Rolling Stone reporter to help tell a fictional story.
This movie is for die hard Davis fans only. For everyone else, read his story on Wiki, and buy the soundtrack.
This gets 2 stars out of 5.