Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 10, 2015 11:50 am 
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New twists

Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead is fractured and crazy. There is no easy way of summarizing it. It leaves you dazed. Wait, did that happen? Or what part of it did happen? The best parts are the incomprehensible transitions. Miles exits an elevator and instantly enters another decade of his life. He is in some kind of gunfight, and at the same time we are following a boxing match. These confusions could be an intelligent outsider's version of the deranged mind of a genius in disarray. Because Miles, the great Picasso of modern jazz history, is in disarray: that much is clear. He is toward the end of a six-year period from 1975 to 1981 in which he dropped out, stayed in, did drugs, and stopped playing music. Cheadle, as Miles, directing himself, and writing the script with help from Steven Baigelman (who helped write Get on Up), has chosen to deliver his subject in the form of a loud, rude confusion. It's a bold venture and he pretty nearly carries it off. One walks out of the theater with much more the feeling of having entered into a life than having been delivered the story of one. If you don't mind a jazz great's biopic delivered in the form of an acid trip gangster picture, Miles Ahead is a pretty fun movie. If it doesn't totally avoid biopic conventions (drug problems, wife problems, the manipulative record company executives), at least for good stretches it seems to.

One convention, much relied on here, is the biographer or journalist who comes along and ferrets out the life story and the rambling musings of the star. This comes in the form of an aggressive, dissolute Rolling Stone writer (so he says) called Dave Brill who forces his way into Miles' spacious, disordered Manhattan hideaway to do, he claims, a comeback story for Columbia Records, and winds up being for a while the musician's factotum, companion, and chauffeur of his Jaguar sedan. Fears that blandness would wash over events through Ewan McGregor's taking on the mantle of the journalist prove unwarranted. This McGregor is a wild, rude fellow in a floppy wig, looking like he's already been short of a decent meal for a few days and gotten in a fight even before Davis punches him in the face.

Then there is the MacGuffin. This comes in the form of a reel-to-reel tape supposedly of long awaited new Miles Davis music, that gets considerable mileage and leads to gunplay, even though there may be little actually on it. Unless you are on drugs. And then there are the drugs. Much of the foreground action is devoted to a drug run to feed Miles' cocaine habit. But there's a young saxophone player too, also an addict, called Junior. Is he a loser or a brilliant new talent? It wasn't clear. This is one trouble with the original, acid-trip style of presentation -- it's not ideal for presenting information.

Very fractured snapshot-like depictions of their wedding; his demands that she curtail her dancing career; his adultery, her departure; do not keep the story of Miles Davis' relations with his first wife (1958-68), Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), from being the thread of the film closest to the stuff of conventional biopics. So, to a degree, is the confrontation with the record company executives. But the fact that Miles is high on coke and pointing a loaded pistol at them adds a novel touch. Miles' behavior throughout is provocative, dangerous, and rather funny. Only a little of Miles' sense of humor comes through, though, and it might have sent the tone out of whack if it had. But Miles' direct, profane language delivered in his famous whispery voice by Cheadle is a constant reality check that tells us that the man may be high, drunk, mean, dangerous, and in the middle of a long period of throwing his life away but is in fact not crazy in the least. Miles Davis' laconic way of expressing himself always had a kind of brilliant clarity about it, a feature the film captures nicely. Cheadle's performance is finely tuned: it's energetic, yet has a sly, restrained side, as if we're looking at Miles looking at himself doing these things, both in present time and in flashback.

If the movie provides an explanation of what led Miles back to making music, I missed it. But the answer is as easy as when Brill asks Miles if he plays the piano and he says "No, I just woke up black." There's the humor, by the way.

There are many stories about how badly, in the depths of his addictions, Miles Davis behaved, his domestic violence, his shortchanging of fellow musicians. We may choose to forgive because he was so clearly a great and endlessly self-regenerating musical talent (the latter an aspect Cheadle's film repeatedly honors). But the bad behavior remains and the car chase and fights and pistol shooting don't really reveal that truthfully. Perhaps this is because of Cheadle's alliance with Miles Davis' family in the form of his musician nephew, Vince Wilburn, Jr.? But I'm reluctant to criticize Cheadle for leaving things out: that he leaves a lot out is one of the film's best features. It's good to see a movie about an artist where he is crazy, drug-addled, wracked with pain and lying fallow, but not depressed, suicidal, or doomed. It sounds funny to say that's an improvement, but it is. And in the contrived scene of Miles playing again, it's lovely to see and hear two of his greatest living former band members playing live on screen, Herbie Hancock, whose assistance with the score provides a tremendous imprimatur, and Wayne Shorter.

Miles Ahead, 100 mins, debuted at the New York Film Festival as the Closing Night film, 10 Oct. 2015, when it was screened for this review. Sony Pictures, release date: 1 April 2016; UK, 22 April. I'm happy to say Armond White likes the film (not something that happens so often)- for the same reasons I do.

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