A Film Review
By Eric K. Williams
New York – The screening of Don Cheadle’s directorial debut in the bio-pic and feature film of the iconic Jazz Trumpeter is now a story of an ‘Art House’ film gaining traction. It is now playing in more cities, and on more screens. No Summertime Blockbuster movie is this story, in spite of it containing fictional chase scenes, that includes shootings, and a dramatic car crash, that is all-too-often the formula in American film these days. What Cheadle has created is a different sort of story telling in the life of a complex American Black man, who was also a genius, visionary, and one who changed the course of American Jazz, and popular music, at least five times over fifty years.
What is noteworthy here is that Cheadle abandoned the standard formula of the bio-pic, and instead used the so called five to six year ‘silent period’ in the life of Miles Davis, as his starting point. In doing so, it gave him artistic license and creative freedom to tell a different kind of story. It is one that does the subject here justice. It is also a story of reflection and, looking back. Both from the standpoint of the artist, Miles Davis himself, and those around him in the music business, who see him in this story, and in this period, as a ‘cash cow’ worth more perhaps dead, than alive.
That the movie first opened in two of America’s largest cities, New York, and Los Angeles, respectively, and was screened in less than a handful of theaters in each place, was perhaps a stroke of brilliance in marketing. We’re talking here about a film, and story-line, that financial backers were reluctant to support for a myriad of reasons. Among those reasons is telling: when it comes to delving into the life of a Black artist, the potential lack of a white co-lead in the story, Jazz music itself, and the fact that biographical films, historically, have not been known to be blockbusters at the box office.
Yet, this film continues to be critically acclaimed in the popular press by voices, and publications that matter. And for good reason. Don Cheadle delivers a superb performance as Miles Davis, he fully embraces the role of his subject, the so-called ‘Prince of Darkness,’ all the way down to that famous raspy and whispery voice known all too well.
This story is centered around Davis’ fictional relationship with a scuzzy reporter, played by Ewan Mc Gregor, looking for his big story, and big break, in getting an exclusive in writing about a music man of mystery. The two, following a tense introduction, engage in all sorts of hi-jinks that include, dope deals, fist fights, pistol whipping, the stealing, and re-stealing, of a precious studio master tape, sleazy record executives, unexpected and forced cocaine driven parties, and a troubled musician, who is also a flunky, and stick-up man, with a drug issue all his own.
The focus of Davis’ flashbacks throughout the movie also center on his relationship with Frances Taylor, a noted late 1950’s-era classical dancer. Taylor became his wife during the so-called ‘heady years’ of Jazz that decade. She is played by, Emayatzy Corinealdi, as the woman then central to his life. The flashbacks, which occur frequently, do not make the story telling choppy, as one would assume. Like Jazz music itself, it is a story of evolution, of where one has been, and where they are going. It works, in what many may complain as being too unorthodox in American film. It is an impressionistic movie likely to make some critics, and Jazz historians, squeamish with Cheadle’s portrait.
Looking at the results of what has been a ten year project for Don Cheadle, one can only assume where he might have drawn ideas in compiling bullet points for piecing this story together. For this reviewer, I would start with two, out of dozens of standout films, and several so-called ‘Art House’ movies over the decades. The two I would include: The 1970 film, Performance, that starred James Fox, and Rolling Stones lead singer, Mick Jagger, playing the role of a washed-up Rock Star living in a house of decadence. The other movie that comes to mind is the 2007 Todd Haynes directed feature film, and bio-pic of Bob Dylan, called, ‘I’m Not There.’
In the latter film, up to six separate actors were used to play Dylan, one of them Cate Blanchette, a woman, who was used to portray Dylan during his electric period that rattled many of his fans. The same was true for Miles, as there were many who hated, even detested, the electric music of Davis during his own electric period of the early to mid-1970’s. That is the very period that led to his ‘silent years’ where he did not perform, record any new material in the studio, nor pick up his trumpet, for five years.
At least six actors could have been used to portray Davis had Cheadle chose to tell the standard biography. But, by focusing solely on the ‘silent years’ he only needed one: himself. There are those who would say that an actor directing himself in a film in which he is also the lead, is akin to a surgeon performing brain surgery on himself. It is a risky proposition, but Cheadle pulls it off with incredible skill, and timing to perfection. He will likely get strong consideration for Oscar Award nominations in both the directing and acting categories from this project. In addition to playing the lead role, Cheadle also wrote the screenplay.
Among the few weaknesses of this movie, from the perspective of this reviewer, is the inability of this film to describe the significance of the cultural, and musical impact of Miles Davis. That is, why he matters, and what he meant, as a composer, musician, and icon, to both the American music buying public, and American Black community at large, to a younger audience, that includes, most importantly, the so-called millennial generation.
Like the movie ‘Im Not There,‘ there are sections of Cheadle’s ‘Miles Ahead’ that will leave the audience scratching their heads, even howling out loud, questions, when viewing the story of a complex man who had taste, confidence, style, pride, and class, and yet, at the same time, could also be violent, mean, vengeful, and crass. Such was the case during one screening this reviewer attended at a Harlem cinema. One heard cries from the smallish audience of, “DAMN!!” and, “Whaaat?!!”
Yet, Sony Pictures was right to place this film in their ‘Classic movie’ category before its limited April release. As word spreads about this quality film, so does its wider distribution. This movie, that few believed would be commercially successful, belongs right up there with other classic films that portray ‘America’s Classical Music,’ which would include, among others, the Clint Eastward directed BYRD, the film about Jazz great, Charlie Parker.
Months before its release, a musician friend, a noted flutist, filmmaker, and New York-based band leader, Sylvain Leroux, who attended the New York Film Festival last Fall where Miles Ahead was first screened locally, had said in one word, that this film was “outstanding.” He was right.
Along with it being a film not to be missed, this movie also further launches the career of Don Cheadle into another sphere. With Miles Ahead he is now among the giants of American actors, screenwriters, and filmmakers, with a movie that is as much a statement, as landmark.