Don Cheadle as Miles Davis © 2016 – Sony Pictures Classics
Man is a creature who walks in two worlds and traces upon the walls of his cave the wonders and the nightmare experiences of his spiritual pilgrimage. Morris West
Last Friday, Anthony and I finally watched Don Cheadle’s film Miles Ahead in which he not only portrays the leading role of Miles Davis, but he actually directs the film as well — and the result is a fascinating work of genius. While not the usual biopic that one expects, Cheadle manages to portray the complex and volatile personality of Miles Davis while he abandons the typical linear movement of a biography and instead leaps forward and back in a fictional and nightmarish timeline of events that conclude with the introduction of Miles’ reinvention of his music.
Don Cheadle as Miles Playing Trumpet © 2016 – Sony Pictures Classics
Born Miles Dewey Davis III — composer, horn-player, husband, friend, antagonist, abuser, yet genius, Miles Davis thrilled audiences with his innovative jazz style, yet fascinated us all the same with his volatile, addictive, and sometimes abusive lifestyle, that for some, influenced their opinions of him. One can say that we should separate the man from his music, but if so, what do we have left? The notes spilling out of the horn would be void of any passion behind it. While tragic, part of what makes jazz so intense is the heart, soul, pain, and suffering behind it that travels over a hundred years back to slavery and leaping forward into the continuing racism and oppression suffered by many of jazz’ great African American artists. This is not to say that all jazz music is sad, in fact, some of it is engagingly uplifting, but a large percentage of jazz music has undertones of soul-crushing sadness. That said, how do we judge a flawed musical genius?
The thing to judge in a jazz artist is does the man project and does he have ideas.
Miles Davis’ creativity and the resulting melodies and harmonies that flow from his music are endlessly influential, and primarily what he is remembered for today — not his mired past, and it is no surprise that Miles Davis makes for a fascinating protagonist. Don Cheadle’s movie — like Miles Davis himself — was off to a rough start.
Don Cheadle — in an interview with Rolling Stone penned by David Fear, dated March 14, 2016 — touches upon the oppression and racism still present today when he says,
…to get this film financed, we needed a white co-star. These are issues that come into play. And until Ewan came on, until we had cast the proper white co-star, there was no Miles Davis movie. There was no Miles Ahead. The family had been trying to make this movie for years, and we straight-up told them, “We need a white co-star. We need to tell this story, in order to get this money, with a white male lead.”
White male co-star in place and ironically portrayed as a Rolling Stone reporter, Miles Ahead (a fictional story about a very real man) was financed and came to fruition on the independent market, and sadly did not fare well in mainstream box offices. Why? Were audiences expecting an accurate biography? Were audiences deterred by an African American lead and a white sidekick? Who knows. I, for one, loved it.
The movie is not your typical biography. In fact, one wonders exactly how much of it is fictional, and how much is biographical. The fictional story is depicted in such an earnest way that separating the man from the story is complicated — and that is the genius of it.
Miles Ahead, which depicts Miles and a white reporter sidekick (in what for Hollywood movie is a clever role-reversal) desperately trying to locate Miles’ stolen “never-heard” comeback music weaves a tapestry of intricate chaos that seems almost like a nightmare unfolding on the screen; yet through the chaos, Cheadle’s scenes transition expertly from “present day” to the past through opening doors and elevator shafts in a manner similar to dreams. Like the reporter played by Ewan McGregor, we as the audience are along for the ride and cannot turn ourselves away from it.
We are witness to a living nightmare — and as people tend to dream in what are often chaotic metaphors — Miles’ search for his stolen music becomes a metaphor for his desperate attempts to re-gain control of his life and his music after a long hiatus from his craft. The nightmare theme is repeated through the transitions and images throughout the film. We see him in bed frequently throughout the movie, but we never see him sleep– he’s restless. It’s almost Shakespearean or poetic, so to speak, in that he seems to fear “what dreams may come” and has “miles to go before [he] sleeps.”
In the end, well, I won’t spoil the ending. Watch it for yourselves, and don’t be afraid of the dark. Lose yourself in the nightmare and enjoy the ride. I did!
Rest in Peace, Miles. 1926-1991