Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Character Study: Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in Miles Ahead.

In 1989, Miles Davis published his autobiography with co-writer Quincy Troupe. It’s an invigorating read as Davis talks about his life in music and why he chose a career in jazz, “The greatest feeling I ever had in my life, with my clothes on, was when I first heard Diz and Bird together in St. Louis, MI, back in 1944.” Davis was referring to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker the seminal progenitors of be-bop, a highly inventive and stylized extension of jazz music.

While he cites that moment as a turning point in his artistic career, Davis also opens up about a dark period in his life from 1975 to 1980. This chapter is particularly important because Miles completely lost that precious moment he experienced in 1944 and turned to alcohol, sex and drugs. He put down his horn, closed himself off from the world and bottomed out: “I became a hermit, hardly ever going outside. My only connection with the outside world was mostly through watching television, which was on around the clock … the house was filthy and real dark and gloomy.” He goes on to say “sex and drugs took the place that music had occupied in my life until then and I did both of them around the clock.” Davis’ drug of choice at the time was high quality cocaine. He writes, “after a while, all of this got routine and boring, but only after I had had my fill of it.” Which leads us to the center of Don Cheadle's first directorial effort, Miles Ahead.

Miles Ahead is an unconventional movie about an unconventional artist told in a slightly unconventional way. It starts as a filmed interview between journalist Dave Brill, played by Ewan McGregor, and a very sharp looking Miles Davis, played by Don Cheadle. The look and attitude is uncanny as we watch Davis, sporting large sunglasses, talking in metaphor about his recent absence from the music scene. Cheadle’s performance is laced with attitude and confidence, two qualities of the Davis personality for which he was famous. But during the interview Brill asks him why he quit playing and Davis’ answer is poignant: “because I had nothing to say.” That moment is one of several that stood out for me during the course of the 100-minute picture. Another occurs later on when Brill (McGregor) asks Davis (Cheadle) about his way of playing the trumpet. Davis replies that “it’s hard to play like yourself,” reflecting the desire of just about every musician – every artist for that matter, who struggles to find their “voice.”

The rest of the picture is a series of stylized flashbacks that reveal the best times when Davis was in full control of his instrument. Unfortunately, Cheadle’s use of music is secondary to the story but he includes a scene with Gil Evans, one of Davis’ favourite collaborators who set new standards in modern jazz on some of Davis’ best recordings. Another flashback takes us to Miles in the mid-fifties meeting Frances Taylor, a dancer, who gave up a successful career after she married him. He insisted that he “needed her” so in a scene that pretty much sums up Davis’ distrustful behaviour, he makes a long distance call to London, England where Frances was working in a production of West Side Story. Davis proposes that she come back to New York and permanently move in with him. After she accepts and he hangs up the phone, Davis returns to the bedroom revealing two women he was “entertaining.” Actress, Emayatzy Corinealdi, nicely plays the forlorn first wife.

Don Cheadle and Ewan McGregor in Miles Ahead.

But the conceit of the picture is over the top. It’s one day in the life of Miles Davis, the day he's approached by Dave Brill. The two have an adversarial relationship because Brill wants an interview with a recluse who’s not interested in talking. But the two unite as Davis battles his record company for money, Brill helps him score “the best cocaine in New York city” and the pair try to get a reel of music from a fast-talking agent, Harper Hamilton, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. Hamilton stole the reel from Davis’ house during an unexpected party thrown by his neighbor intending to give it to the so-called owners, Columbia Records. The story isn’t true but it hooks us in until the end. Consequently we get an action film dressed up as a character study and for the most part it’s a success.

But Miles Davis is a character in Miles Ahead, not its subject. We get to know a talented musician who’s hooked on cocaine, fast women and doesn’t trust record executives. While most of the events in the movie are true, the character of Davis in this movie is a less forgiving personality. He’s aware of how he treats people but he doesn’t care. All he wants is cocaine, money and his beloved demo tape. It’s as if Cheadle and his co-writer Steven Baigelman only thought the aforementioned chapter of Davis’ autobiography worthy of a film treatment.

As a result, Cheadle’s performance, albeit nuanced and focused, fails to create any empathy. Unlike Ethan Hawke in Born To Be Blue who played Chet Baker as a troubled human being full of weaknesses, Cheadle’s portrayal of Davis is often too extreme to be believed. Why would a guy risk his life to get back a single reel of tape? I think it’s because Cheadle wants to use the story as a metaphor for Davis’ burning pursuit of his own voice that was lost when he quit playing during the five-year hiatus. Cheadle also seems to have wanted to convey the unpredictable musician in the best way possible and for the most part he’s successful. Davis’ reckless behaviour is a part of his personality in Miles Ahead and Cheadle plays it effectively for all its worth, but what makes his performance engaging are the quiet moments of introspection, especially at the beginning of the picture when he’s deeply focused on the reel of recorded tape he values above all else. I wanted more scenes like that in the movie.

As director, Cheadle portrays Davis as a person everyone is attracted to but only for his or her own well-being. For instance, the Columbia Record executives want their album so they can make a profit. His neighbours only want to party in his house to get glimpse of his fame. Fans only like his early music such as Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain. On the latter point during the movie, a drug dealer tells Davis (Cheadle) how much he loves to “make out” with his girlfriend while playing his records. Davis, who made a career of playing ahead of the musical curve, can’t understand why the young dealer prefers music that Davis thinks is old and outdated.

Miles Ahead is not about a musician who’s lost his muse and tries to get it back; it’s a movie about a man who thought he was finished. For Davis, who had one of the most accessible and distinguished voices in music, silence was a better choice than re-hashing the past or pursuing some false idea. (Fortunately he made that comeback.) Yet what keeps him going according to Cheadle is the pursuit of that personal statement: a burning desire to play his horn and make social music, as he calls it, that is relevant to him. Miles Ahead captures that desire effectively but in an unconventional way.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He’s just finished Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) to be released in September.

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