Sony Pictures Classics

Quick: Name an adjective you associate with Miles Davis.

You picked “cool,” right? Even in settings where the late trumpeter’s music is far out of mind, he pops up as a symbol of cool: Gap ads. Indie-rock songs. Adam Sandler vehicles. Davis’s iconic coolness and his status as the most famous star in his genre make him a tempting subject for filmmakers—perhaps the most tempting, though not the first jazz musician to get the treatment. Make a movie about a famous jazzman and you get glamour, smoky nightclub scenes, sharp suits, and drugs. But it’s hard to capture what made these people great musicians, since practicing ii-V-I progressions doesn’t really make for great footage.

Viewed from a certain perspective, jazz is a high-drama form: A group of musicians get together, often with only a melody and a set of chords, and then the players are expected to take turns producing fresh improvised solos on the spot. It’s flying without a net. There’s a real tension to that, but it’s difficult to convey, especially to a non-jazz obsessive, and jazz is a form that is infamously prone to obsessives and closed to outsiders. Sit through an hour-long set by even the best jazz groups and you’re likely to get a few moments of transcendence, an occasional instant of disaster, and long stretches where musicians are trying to work things out with middling success. The natural choice for a filmmaker is to focus on the coolness and the pathos, and push the music a little bit to the side.

One of the strengths of Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s excellent new Davis biopic, is the way it rejects that approach, capturing its subject’s musical genius while still delivering a quick-paced plot. It achieves that in part with a gonzo, fictionalized storyline involving a stolen reel of tape, high-speed car chases, and gunplay. But it also does by avoiding the easy path. Instead of focusing on Davis at the height of his powers—say, at his Brooks Brothers-clad apogee in the 1950s, when he’d kicked heroin and was recording the top-selling jazz record of all time—it depicts him at his lowest moment.

In the late 1970s, after driving hard into a psychedelic, electric direction, Davis quit music, entering a reclusive haze of debauchery, pornography, cocaine, and dissolution. (Don’t take it from me, or from Cheadle. Davis described it unblinkingly in his autobiography.) Cheadle’s Davis is bitter, violent, coke-addled, physically spent, and has let his chops go so far that he can’t really play his horn. Jheri-curled, balding, and sporting a wardrobe that is (generously) an amazing period piece, he lounges around his darkened apartment, haunted by memories of his ex-wife Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi), who left him over his violent abuse and endless philandering. It’s not cool at all.

Reaction to Miles Ahead has focused, sometimes critically, on the fictionalized elements of the movie. The plot circles around attempts by an invented Rolling Stone reporter, played by Ewan McGregor, to interview Davis about a supposed comeback, and Davis’s attempts to recover the stolen recording. The inventions aren’t as crazy as they might seem. Davis was shot at while driving around Brooklyn in 1969; he was also famously violent.

There’s also drug use—a staple of jazz biopics, from the 1972 Billie Holiday film Lady Sings the Blues, or the 1988 Charlie Parker homage Bird, in which the saxophonist’s heroin habit takes center stage, undermining his brilliant career and ultimately bringing about his untimely demise. Filmmakers, along with critics and listeners, have tended to treat this kind of dissolution as romantic and glamorous. “He was the essence of cool,” one critic wrote of Parker in his review of Bird, a role Miles has overtaken since his death. Forest Whitaker’s Bird was a doomed hero, fitting “the paradigm of the jazzman-as-victim,” as Janet Maslin put it, quoting Nat Hentoff.

But drugs never becomes the focus of Miles Ahead, perhaps because coke—which Cheadle’s Davis eagerly sniffs—isn’t an especially romantic drug. (A one-time heroin addict, the trumpeter kicked the habit in 1954, locking himself in a room at his father’s house and going cold turkey. He was forthright about his continued cocaine use later. ) If Miles Ahead’s subject is a victim, it’s only of his own paranoia, misogyny, and anger: Begged to return to music, he withdraws farther. (Davis did return to live performance in 1981, producing a series of interesting though often bad records influenced by contemporary pop until his death in 1991, at 65.)

Freed from the need to embody coolness, and eschewing real events in search of a higher truth, the film is able to capture a great deal of the Davis who emerges from his autobiography and the accounts of his friends and sidemen. It’s also able to offer a glimpse into the creative and improvisational magic of jazz. “Our attempt with this movie was to try to externalize an internal process,” Cheadle told me. “It’s inherently non-dramatic.” In one particularly effective moment, set during recording sessions for Porgy and Bess, Davis sits with the arranger Gil Evans and works out some changes to the score.

“One of people’s favorite scenes is the scene where he works on the recording session,” Cheadle told me. “That’s just cool because that scene was improvised. There’s just a line in the script that says, ‘Miles works on “Gone.”’ I said I wanted musicians, not actors. I wanted charts. When you’re looking at the movie, you feel the authenticity there.”

Later, when a fictional young trumpeter named Junior tries to pick something up from the purloined reel-to-reel, Davis—who’s been rude and abrasive to the young man throughout the film—suddenly softens, carefully directing the younger player how to voice a chord to great effect. (Davis’s real-life sidemen weren’t always as lucky as Junior. Herbie Hancock told Cheadle about his first time playing with Davis’s band. Having received few instructions, he asked the trumpeter what he should play. Davis responded bluntly, using his favorite epithet: “Piano, motherfucker.”)

Cheadle learned to play trumpet for the film, the better to mimic Davis’s fingers moving over the valves. At other points in the movie, actors portray the members of Davis’s second great quintet, with Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Wayne Shorter. The film’s closing sequence is a strange fantasia, an imaginary concert scene where late-period Davis plays with the real-life Hancock and Shorter, plus a host of younger musicians like Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding.

As Cheadle has recounted many times, his involvement in the project began when Davis’s nephew (and former drummer) Vince Wilburn Jr. told reporters that a biopic was in the work and Cheadle would play the lead—the first time the actor learned about it. More important to the movie’s success, perhaps, is a different member of Davis’s family: Frances Taylor, his first wife. Cheadle told me he first met Taylor in the 1990s when she was a hostess at Hamburger Hamlet in Los Angeles. At the time, he had no idea who she was. You might expect this involvement could lead to a film that pulls its punches on less savory elements. It’s possible it had the opposite effect.

The story of Davis’s courtship and stormy relationship with Taylor is told through flashbacks. She appeared on several of his album covers in the 1950s and 1960s—a bold move at a time when white eye candy was more common on commercial releases like his. In the film, Davis agrees to sign a couple records for a Columbia University student selling him cocaine, but confiscates a copy of Someday My Prince Will Come with Taylor’s face on it. A talented professional dancer who ended her career at Davis’s demand, Taylor left him after a decade, afraid for her life. In 2006, as a different Miles biopic was under development, she told The New York Times, “There’s got to be full treatment of his genius, as well as his shortcomings.” Miles Ahead meets that mandate.

Race was never far from Davis’s mind. He was a victim of police brutality—a version of a famous clubbing by a cop outside Birdland is in the film—and believed, often correctly, that he was deprived of recognition due to racist mores. It’s interesting to imagine what Davis would have thought of the addition of the McGregor character. He was often vituperative about white people, but his closest collaborator was Evans, and he mentored white musicians from throughout his career, from Bill Evans to John Scofield.

Still, it seems ironic that Miles Ahead is entering wide release just a week after Born to Be Blue, Ethan Hawke’s biopic about Chet Baker. Baker, a white trumpeter and singer, affected a similar vibrato-less tone to Davis and played some of the same ballads. Davis was harsh about it in his book. “What bothered me more than anything was that all the critics were starting to talk about Chet Baker ... like he was the second coming of Jesus Christ. And him sounding just like me—worse than me even while I was a terrible junkie,” he wrote. “Both him and me knew that he had copied a lot of shit from me.”

There’s a superficial similarity between Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue. Both portray famous trumpeters. Both focus on periods of exile. In Baker’s case, he was attacked, possibly during a drug deal, in 1968 and had to be fitted with dentures, then relearn his horn. In both cases, the leading men love and lose a beautiful woman because of their lack of self-control. Both films also go out of their way to include historical figures whom only obsessives will recognize: Davis’s producer Teo Macero, and Baker’s producer Richard Bock. Davis even appears in Born to Be Blue, (mostly) characteristically dismissive of Baker.

And both films grapple with drugs. Davis also wrote that the press focused too much on the drug problems of black musicians like himself and Parker while ignoring white junkies like Baker and the saxophonist Stan Getz. No one will lodge such an objection against Born to Be Blue. The movie shows Baker trying—and, for a time, with the help of his girlfriend—kicking heroin. But at the end of the film, on the cusp of a high-pressure comeback gig, Baker flinches and relapses. His career is back, but his woman leaves. (The trumpeter died in 1988 after falling out of an Amsterdam hotel window. He had been using cocaine and heroin.)

Hawke does an impressive job physically impersonating Baker, a haunted man. And he conveys how important music was to Baker: In one scene, the trumpeter spits blood as he sits in a bathtub, trying to relearn how to play with the dentures. But you don’t get any sense why critics (well, some of them) regard Baker’s music so highly. The audience never sees much more than Baker playing through a melody. Could he improvise? Who knows! Born to Be Blue is a good movie, but it’s a movie about heroin addiction that uses jazz as a vehicle. Baker is just another doomed, romantic hero—the jazzman as victim.

That’s what makes Miles Ahead a triumph. It shows Miles Davis as a flawed human, but not a tragically flawed archetype. And it shows him as a consummate artist engaged in the hard work of music—not just a guy who happened to play trumpet, or an dreamy artist savant. More than enough jazz musicians have imitated Miles. Future jazz-biopic directors could stand to emulate Miles Ahead.

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