‘Miles Ahead’ offers new understanding
January 26, 2016
The silence was deafening! From 1975 to 1980, no one outside the always-bolted Manhattan townhouse door of Miles Davis really had a clue. No new recordings! No concert tours! A strange inexplicable aura had engulfed one of music’s true icons and, although everyone had theories, no one really knew why.
Now, however, filmmaker Don Cheadle has picked those locks and, through intensive research and a highly artistic improvisational sensibility, brought us his intriguing and somewhat flamboyant Miles-like take on the matter.
His resultant film, "Mile Ahead," currently screening at Sundance in the Spotlight category and featuring a screenplay combining plausibility with sidebars of historical fiction, plays both as a psychological thriller and an essential addition to the canon.
Brimming with flashbacks while refusing to touch upon all the usual biopic clichés, Davis’ legend dominates everyone and everything and the multitude of eras, defined brilliantly by music and style, are true to the respective timeframes involved. Suspension of disbelief is a given!
It tells its story not as a primer but rather as an out-of-order peeling back of layers. It doesn’t hold your hand. Shapes continually shift without explanation and all the fabrications are true.
Cheadle’s premise to artistically investigate Miles’ "missing years," when he hunkered down with substance abuse and women and, according to his autobiography, never played his horn, was a stroke of pure genius. With nothing in the record to contradict, the Oscar-nominated actor and first-time director flowed free.
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Although Miles had stated in his aforementioned autobiography that during the timeframe in question he "didn’t pick (his horn) up once," Cheadle had heard snippets of recordings that belied that assertion. With his curiosity now fully fueled, he peeked inside other doorways of consequence.
An often madcap search for a stolen reel-to-reel tape involving mayhem and gunplay and featuring actor Ewan McGregor as a Rolling Stone reporter who, as a film character, reeks of composite intruders into Miles’ comfort zone, is the jumping off point.
His romantic-turned-dominating marriage to dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi just flat-out killing it) comes through flashback, as do earlier "cool-school" recording sessions with John Coltrane, the post-modal quintet with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, and the jazz-rock-fusion days that followed.
As one who once was on the receiving end of an innocuous Miles Davis glare, I can say that in terms of facial expression and attitude, Cheadle nails the role. From Brooks Brothers to elegant-hipster mix-and-match, the "angry genius" mindset never had a better clothes model.
In fact, all the locations, from rains-soaked alleys to corporate boardrooms to Miles’ own disheveled multi-story pad, are dressed to the hilt. Naturally. Nothing feels forced. Nothing feels like a reach. I mean, when you’re attempting to reconcile the coolest cat on the planet with his Howard Hughes endgame, demons come with the territory.
As one who’s had Miles in his life pretty much from his late-teens on, he homesteaded a section of my pantheon rather early. In moving jazz forward, he’s easily in the same conversation as Satchmo, Bird, Duke, Bix, Lady Day, and a few others. I loved Miles although, in retrospect, he was anything but loveable.
And, I must admit, I’m rather smitten with Don Cheadle’s film. Although I had more questions coming out than I did going in, that’s a good thing. I can’t say the film caused me to listen to more Miles for the sole reason that I’ve listened to more Miles than anything else for years. Consider that a disclaimer.
The film also features cameos of still-living bandmates of Miles that are to die for. In fact if they have Oscars for "performance footage played alongside rolling end credits," do I have a nomination for you!