For whatever reason, 2016 is seeing a glut of musician bio-pics: Hank Williams Sr., Chet Baker, Nina Simone, and Miles Davis are all getting the Hollywood treatment. Thinking back on this genre, it occurred to me that you could count the number of great movies about musicians on one hand, and that hand would have to be without fingers or clenched in a fist (though I am a sucker for Amadeus.) It makes you wonder: what do filmmakers think of when they seek to make a film about the life of a popular singer, other than dollars? Obviously, there’s an admiration of a great talent, which begs the question as to why so many of these movies seem so bereft of skill, much less imagination. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d imagine it’s the same desire that prompts people to want to make movies from books—if a musician’s life is a great story, why, by all means, transform it into a great movie.
Director: Don Cheadle
Producer: Robert Ogden Barnum, Don Cheadle, Pamela Hirsch, Darryl Porter, Daniel Wagner, Vince Wilburn Jr., Lenore Zerman
Writers: Steven Baigelman, Don Cheadle, Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson
Cinematographer: Roberto Schaefer
Editors: John Axelrad, Kayla Emter
Music: Robert Glasper
Cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Keith Stanfield, Christina Karis, Austin Lyon, Nina Smilow, Joshua Jessen, Theron Brown
Premiere: October 10, 2015 – New York Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: April 15, 2016
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
If you were to ask me (and no ever will), what I’d want from a bio-pic—whether it’s a story that is a point by point, A-Z examination of the life and artistic process of an artist, or a shattered narrative, the story shuffled like a deck of cards, the beginning and the ending, the highs and the lows helter-skelter, a sort-of Godard does jazz situation—well, as you could probably guess, I’d pick the latter.
But after watching Don Cheadle’s disastrous Miles Ahead, I have to amend this choice. Can’t Hollywood just leave well enough alone?
Don Cheadle, one of my favorite actors, tries, my gosh he tries, to write, direct, act and even score this film, and his effort is one of those bizarre failures that at first makes you encouraged that someone’s making a stab at something interesting, but by the end is so grating and exhausting that you begin to question whether or not Cheadle is even capable of telling a good tale. Using this as evidence, I’d have to say no.
Miles Ahead begins, annoyingly, with fictional Rolling Stone writer Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor, who I also believed could act at one time), interviewing Davis. The camera shakes around, as if to suggest that this is cinema verite, when in fact everyone’s sitting in Davis’ office, so why would the camera jolt about and go in and out of focus? Brill begins with some dull questions, prompting Davis, in the wild hair and always-wearing-sunglasses phase of his career (when he was on a hiatus in the mid to late 70s), to say “If you’re going to tell the story, come with some attitude!”
This “attitude” means that Cheadle’s not going to tell the Miles Davis story in a normal way. And good for him—I don’t know if I want to see actors portraying John Coltrane and all of the people in Miles Davis’ long career, or see some important moment that spelled the beginning of Davis’ famed break from recording and performing. A film with attitude sounds great.
But what we get is one of the silliest boilerplate capers imaginable, the very opposite of attitude. For starters, we flash back to see the annoying Brill trying to get this interview for Rolling Stone. He bugs Davis at his home, which appears to be a deconsecrated church in Manhattan. Brill tries to get Davis to trust him, and Davis punches Brill in the face, suggesting that Cheadle had seen the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, an actually enjoyable documentary about the drummer Ginger Baker. Oddly enough, Brill is going to accompany Davis throughout this picture, and we’ll even get the charming moment where Brill admits that his ex-wife’s boyfriend beat him up, whereupon Davis will help the poor white dude by teaching him to box. Always the black dude has to help the white loser with his love troubles. But Miles Davis? Sigh.
Brill discovers that Davis has a tape that everyone wants—apparently it will bring Columbia Records their next record, for which everyone’ll make a bundle. Michael Stuhlbarg is on hand to play fictional producer Harper Hamilton, who steals the tape when Davis refuses to hand it over. Keith Stanfield plays a fictional trumpet player without a name who is involved in this heist. Davis and Brill will chase after them, get chased right back by Hamilton’s bodyguards, and there’s gunplay and chase scenes and none of it amounts to anything.
Throughout this story, we see Davis reminiscing about making the incredible Sketches of Spain album (which was apparently recorded in a home studio where a telephone can be heard from another room), and also witness the courtship, marriage, and divorce between himself and Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). This is as clichéd as anything you can imagine—and Frances is a saint, who gives up a promising dancing career, and is the only one who truly understands the enigma that is Miles Davis.
I’ve read stories that Cheadle’s been wanting to make the life story of Miles Davis into a film for years, until one member of the jazz trumpeter’s family became finally agreed and became eager to get Cheadle on board, which is supposed to suggest that there is a gravitas to Miles Ahead that simply doesn’t exist. It’s the equivalent of actors who go through a form of boot camp when playing soldiers, as if to chide viewers into complacency. Many of Davis’ family—and ex-wife Frances Taylor—were executive producers, which explains why this is such a safe film in regards to Davis and especially Taylor. There are never moments of genuine cruelty here, or even an honest appraisal of the relationship, just your usual ups and downs that have plagued everything from Walk the Line to, well, you name the bio-pic in any genre. The usual drug abuse, drunkenness, affairs, and obsession with craft at the expense of a relationship violate the film’s opening salvo of having “attitude.”
Mostly, Miles Ahead is baffling: why is Ewan McGregor’s Brill in this movie almost as much as Cheadle’s Davis? Why does Cheadle’s Davis state that he doesn’t play jazz but “social music”, and then appear later in the film wearing a vest that reads “#socialmusic”, as if he somehow knew of Twitter before its time?
Supposedly, Cheadle tried to mimic a Miles Davis composition in making the movie and make an “anti-bio-pic”. But like Todd Haynes’ overrated I’m Not There, Miles Ahead splinters its narrative into many dull parts, each lacking verve and imagination. If you’re going to copy the masters, be sure you know what you’re doing. Like a high school band lumbering through Brubeck’s Take Five, Miles Ahead only leaves you hungering for some real jazz.