Sunday, April 24, 2016

Don Cheadle’s Problematic Yet Worthwhile Miles Davis Movie

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

MILES AHEAD (Dir. Don Cheadle, 2015)

This unconventional biopic of jazz legend Miles Davis is undeniably Don Cheadle’s dream project. In his directorial debut, Cheadle stars, co-wrote, co-produced, and even trained on the trumpet to play his subject’s solos so there’s definitely passion in place to make a powerful portrait.

And despite not much of a facial resemblance, Cheadle makes a great Miles Davis. He’s got the voice, affectations, and swagger down as just about anybody who’s spent some time YouTubing Davis clips can attest.

But to get MILES AHEAD (at one point titled KILL THE TRUMPET PLAYER) made, Cheadle had to make a major concession: he had to hire a white co-star in order for investors to finance the film.

Now if you have to have a white co-star, Ewan McGregor is a fine choice. However, I kept thinking that his character wasn’t necessary. McGregor plays Dave Braden *, a reporter for Rolling Stone, who shows up at the door of Davis’ New York brownstone trying to get an interview with Davis. The year is 1979, and Davis has been in heavy seclusion, having not performed in public or put out any music for five years.

McGregor’s Braden, who’s hoping to get to the bottom of what’s been called Davis’s “silent period” and pen a big comeback piece that will prompt the famous recluse to come out of hiding, discovers that there is a tape from a secret recording session that Davis’s label, Columbia Records, has stolen, and the unlikely duo of journalist/jazz legend team up to steal it back.

The tape is the film’s obvious McGuffin, with the coked-up Davis and the antsy Braden winding through a day involving confrontations with record execs, a shoot-out, and a car chase to retrieve the elusive recording. Caught up in the tape caper is Michael Stuhlbarg as a sleazy producer, and LaKeith Lee Stanfield as his client, a young up and coming trumpeter.

All of these characters and events are fictitious, but Cheadle has the film intermittently flash back to Davis’ early career in gorgeous smoky black and white shots that capture the artist in his late ‘50s/early ‘60s “Kind of Blue” period. These scenes center around Davis’ relationship with his first wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), whose face face on the album cover for his 1961 album “Someday My Prince Will Come” haunts the later day musician.

The movie is wall-to-wall Miles music, including such key tracks as “So What,” “Nefertiti,” “Frelon Brun,” “Solea,” "Go Ahead John, Pt. 2," and “Black Satin,” all sounding wonderful, and all nicely tied together with new music, a score by composer Robert Glasper, which Cheadle even contributed to too.

“If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude, man,” Cheadle’s Davis tells McGregor’s Brill and Cheadle does indeed do that here, but the fractured narrative zig zags around its protagonist so much that we feel disconnected from him. I felt as baffled as McGregor looks throughout at Davis’ behavior and self-imposed darkness. For somebody who prefers to call his style “social music” instead of jazz, Davis comes across as somebody who’d rather not socialize. One of my major takeaways is that I’d rather listen to this guy play than hang out with him, especially considering his gun waving hostility.

I admire that Cheadle, and co-writer Steven Baigelman (GET ON UP), didn’t want to take a traditional cradle-to-grave Wikipedia page approach to Davis’ life, and decided instead to make an impressionistic portrait, but when one of the most stirring scenes is drawn from the historic record, the 1959 beating and arrest of Davis outside the jazz club Birdland by two members of the NYPD, it made me wonder how they might’ve crushed it had they gone the more conventional route.

The scenario with McGregor’s desperate scribe latching onto Cheadle’s scrambled characterization of the troubled trumpeter, and the convolutions surrounding the much sought after tape wore on me in short time. They felt more like tropes that would make up a bad episode of the HBO show Vinyl (detractors would say that would be any of them) than elements worthy of fleshing out on the big screen.

The conclusion of the film appears to be a comeback concert scene with Cheadle’s Davis, wearing a vest branded “#SocialMusic,” jamming with Herbie Hancock. The implication is that it is modern day and Davis, who in the non movie world died in ’91, is still alive – in influence at the very least. The title: “Miles Davis May 26, 1926 -” backs that up.

So I have some issues with Cheadle’s efforts here, but still found enough of his film to be vital, electric, and effective stuff that pays hardcore homage.

Its flights of fancy can ultimately be forgiven on that respect.

* The character that McGregor plays is listed as Dave Brill on IMDb, but “David Braden” on the film's Wikipedia page. Googling it I found that the name Braden or Brill come up in almost equal amounts on many sites entries on the film. So what's the deal? Why two different last names for the guy? Anybody know?

More later...

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