The jazz cognoscenti have lined up in pretty lock step to slam the Miles Davis movie, “Miles Ahead.” From nit-picking continuity issues including clothing and the microphones used to wholesale rejection of the film’s high concept, disdaining “Miles Ahead” has almost become a litmus test of a critic’s jazz credibility.
Perhaps the weakest knee-jerk reaction on the part of any artist to criticism is, “You just don’t get it, do you?” But in my opinion such a reaction is to some degree warranted on the part of Cheadle’s creative team.
The biopic has always been popular, but it really is the current genre du jour. America’s obsession with celebrity, its propensity to fall prey to cults of personality has birthed what seems to the layman movie-goer an unprecedented interest in thumbnail reductions of larger-than-life lives, as has recently been done to James Brown, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney and others, each to its own varying degree of success. The question I would ask if presented with the daunting task of bringing Miles Davis to life on film, and the question I am pretty confident Don Cheadle asked is, “What would Miles do?” And I think the answer is that he would point his horn opposite the expected direction.
What I infer from Cheadle’s choice to present a sequence that is fictional in terms of events but arguably factual in terms of human disposition is that not only was the entirety of Miles’ life too prodigious to address in a hundred minutes, a just representation of anything purportedly factual would by its very nature be a distortion and a betrayal, antithetical to the entire Miles Davis ethos. Cheadle instead sought to capture some of the complexity and turmoil of the man rather than stand as some kind of self-appointed arbiter of the relative importance of this or that component of Miles’ life and music. Cheadle played the opportunity like Miles would play a solo, with ferocity and daring.
The action flick nature of “Miles Ahead” was entertaining and also served to portray how fiercely protective of their work the great black music giants of the 20th century had to be. They had a real understanding of its value, and a real understanding of how willing and able the record industry was to acquire it below its value or to steal it outright. It is this spirit that made Ray Charles insist on being paid in one dollar bills so he could count them with certainty. For these great artists, their unprotected intellectual property was all they had, and depending on how they managed it, it was worth anywhere between millions of dollars and not one cent.
For those craving elements of a biopic, perhaps the steadily used flashback to the love story between Miles and Frances ought to have been enough. For me, it was. And as a modestly accomplished amateur trumpet player, I was very impressed by Cheadle’s approximation of Miles’ Julliard-honed trumpet technique.
From a visual and an auditory perspective, the film is a feast. It is as chaotic as it is ordered, like jazz itself. The greatest solo, the greatest performance, the greatest album, the greatest career in jazz always leaves its listener transformed but not necessarily resolved. It is an art form that is much about questions as it is answers. The irresolute nature of living is how the most moving jazz sits in the ear, and leaves the jazz lover or the life liver with a feeling of melancholy that is at once belied by an overwhelming gratitude for having been so lucky as to have had a passing whiff of it, however illusory, however temporary, however imperfect. Like Miles said, “It’s the notes you don’t play.” I think Cheadle et al heard that suggestion and did something akin to what Miles would do: play something fresh and exciting, leave a lot out and maybe split a few notes along the way.