Review by Cederick Gibbs
Anyone who really knows me knows how much jazz has shaped my life as a musician and as a person. I got formally introduced to the art form in high school and was blown away at how the musicians had this ability to express themselves in interesting ways. When I started playing jazz, I was hooked on improvisation, how to create something all your own with or without boundaries. As a shy/introverted high school kid, I saw improvisation as a way to express myself that I felt comfortable with.
So, for my first film review and to acknowledge Jazz Appreciation Month in April, I decided to pick Miles Ahead. Jazz Appreciation Month was started by the Smithsonian Institution in 2002 to celebrate jazz, recognize its practitioners, and to encourage people to engage with the music.
Miles Davis is one of my musical inspirations. I really admired how he never stuck to one style of jazz and I would say he transcended jazz to experiment with rock, pop, and at the end of his life, hip hop. I always aspire to be that kind of artist. I own a few of Davis’ CDs and I mistakenly brought Kind of Blue twice. As for Mr. Davis personality, people know he wasn’t an easy person to deal with. I’m sure you can ask Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, or Sonny Rollins, and they will give you interesting stories.
Miles Ahead is the directorial debut of actor Don Cheadle. The film stars Cheadle as Davis, Ewan McGregor as fictional reporter Dave Braden, and Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances Taylor, Davis’ wife. The screenplay is by Cheadle and Steven Baigelman (who did previous work on Get on Up). This film was years in the making. When Miles Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, someone approached his nephew about the possibility of a Miles Davis film. His nephew said that a film would be done only if his uncle was portrayed by Don Cheadle. Once Cheadle was attached, the film struggled with financing. The financers wanted a white person to co-star in the film. It’s a shame that this was an issue. With the recent uproar over diversity in Hollywood, hopefully this will be rectified. With Ewan McGregor’s fictional character of Dave Braden, Cheadle brilliantly makes the sidekick to Miles Davis. In some films starring people of color, white characters were inserted to ensure the film’s profitability and also probably to give the “audience” someone to relate to. One glaring effect of this was that the white characters would co-opt the person of color’s story. Miles Ahead avoids that. The offbeat concept and unorthodox approach to making a movie about Miles Davis also contributed to trouble with financing the movie. Some crowdfunding was used to help with financing.
The film focuses on a five year period when Miles Davis stopped recording, which was from 1975-1980. More specifically, the film has flashbacks to when Davis and Frances Taylor met and their tumultuous relationship, but the main action of the story takes place over a two day period. The film opens on Davis sitting down for an interview. The scene is shot in a way to give it an interview/documentary feel, with the camera following Miles’ every movement and hand gesture. With the “outtakes” in this opening scene, it is already established that this is going to be something different than your typical biopic fare. Right from the start, Cheadle embodies Davis, with his brashness and colorful language. After a brief cut to a later part of the movie, we continue with Miles in his self-imposed exile. He is angry about not getting his royalty check, so he calls Columbia Record to inquire about it. His lawyer Harold Lovett (Derek Snow) and the people at Columbia know he has been working on music, and want him to release some new stuff. Miles declines to release any music until he is ready. Miles is then interrupted by Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), who, after a scuffle and testy confrontation, informs Miles that he was sent by Columbia to do an interview about Davis’ supposed comeback. Davis decides to see if this is true by forcing Dave to take him to Columbia. The folks at Columbia insist that Miles release new music and don’t know who Dave Braden is. After a violent confrontation with an A&R who doesn’t really know that Miles Davis is not a man to be messed with, music businessman Harper Hamilton (played with effective smarm by Michael Stuhlbarg) steps in to alleviate Miles’ aggression. He has the upmost respect for Davis’ music and has a young up and coming trumpet player named Junior (Keith Stanfield), and would be interested in getting the two trumpeters to work together on something. Harper also knows that Miles loves boxing, so Harper offers tickets to a boxing match the next night. Later when Junior and Harper end up stealing Davis’ session tape, Miles and Dave work together to get it back and they develop an understanding of each other.
Cheadle is exceptional as Davis and I believe he should and probably will get some awards recognition for his work as Davis and possibly for directing. Cheadle fully embodies Davis, from the raspy voice to the attitude. The film doesn’t pull any punches from showing the man who gained the nickname, the “Prince of Darkness”. In the film, Davis shoots at various people and call them expletives. Davis relationship with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) is the main focus of the flashbacks, which have a dreamy, impressionistic feel that I believe was done well, which the editing is to be commended for. Frances was Miles muse, and she shown both as haunted and haunting, as her name is invoked in Miles’ thoughts throughout the film and as he comes to terms with the way he handled their relationship.
The music choices are great, spanning several years’ of Miles’ work with additional music by Robert Glasper. These include “Frelot Brun” (Filles de Kilimanjaro, 1968), “Seven Steps to Heaven” (Seven Steps to Heaven, 1963), “Black Satin” (On The Corner, 1972), “Solea” (Sketches of Spain, 1960), “So What” (Kind of Blue, 1959), and “Miles Ahead” (Miles Ahead, 1957), among others. The soundtrack also includes some dialogue by Don Cheadle as Miles Davis. Davis’ music is used effectively in the more passive scenes and in the more action oriented scenes. One of Glasper’s works, “Francessence” is used beautifully in an intimate scene between Miles and Frances. The music along with the way the camera moves and frames the motion creates a scene that is filled with passion and lays out the relationship between music (in this case jazz) and dance (which was Taylor’s profession). Glasper’s “What’s Wrong with That” and “Gone 2015” appear at the end of the movie. “What’s Wrong with That” is a treat. Cheadle as Davis steps into to the 21st century and gives a performance along with Glasper, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding, Gary Clark Jr., and Antonio Sanchez. This continues each musician’s involvement in keeping jazz and blues living, breathing artforms. Glasper will continue his involvement with Miles Davis as producer of Everything’s Beautiful, a reinterpretation of Davis’ music by various musicians that will be released May 27. After the ending concert is done (which got some applause from the audiences I saw the movie with), a befitting epitaph to Miles is shown on the screen: May 26, 1926 – (with nothing after the dash). The people who have influenced our lives through their art will one day leave this earth, but the way their work has impacted us and culture at large rings eternal.
As I have stated earlier, Miles Davis is an inspiration to me as a trumpet player. Over the years of my playing, I would and still get a few generous compliments comparing my playing to Miles Davis or get called Miles. Of course I know that I’m not nearly as talented as him, but I’m always flattered the most by those compliments. In Miles Davis, I found my first inspiration of an artist that refused to be defined by labels and defied genre classification. He was always innovating, trying to find something new to say and trying to find new ways of saying things. I have tried to embody that in my life, creative or otherwise. As someone who has to tell people I don’t just play Jazz, tries to create music that defies genres, listen to all kinds of music, and tries not to strictly classify the music I create, Miles Davis is someone I look to. This film does the same thing and effectively invokes the spirit of what Miles Davis was all about.