MILES AHEAD (2016)
Starring: Don Cheadle, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Ewan McGregor
Director: Don Cheadle
Runtime: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Pet projects can go one of two ways: a complete cluster-fuck (Travolta's Battleship Earth, M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water) or they can be brilliant (Clint Eastwood's Bird, everything ever conceived by Terry Gilliam.) Cheadle co-wrote, directed and starred as Miles Davis in his own vanity project, Miles Ahead, and it is most definitely in the latter category.
A strange head trip through Davis's career, book-ended by an interview with fictional Rolling Stone writer Dave Braden (McGregor) apparently right before his The Man with a Horn comeback after a four-year hiatus in 1979. Jumping back and forth in time within the mind of Cheadle's burnt out and broken Davis, the fantasy of a chase through NYC to regain a stolen tape reel may be fiction but within it holds an essential set of truths about the most influential game changer in music history.
According to Cheadle, in an interview with the real Rolling Stone just after its premiere at Sundance,
"...one concept was to focus on the five women in his life that he loved and use that as a framework. I told them, "Thanks for thinking of me, but I'm really not vibing off of any of these ideas."
Then, almost as an afterthought, I said, "I think we've got to make a movie about this dude as a gangster" — 'cause that's how I feel about Miles Davis. He's a G. All those apocryphal stories about how bold and dynamic he was, the gangster shit he'd do ... you could fit all that into a biopic, I guess. But I just thought, let's do a movie that Miles Davis would say, 'I want to be the star of that movie. Not the one about me. The one where I'm the fucker running it, and I tell everybody what happens.'" Take the music he made in 1950 and put it over scenes set in 1978, or take his 1965 album and drop it into 1945. Just do it without the constraints of any rules. Make some mistakes, go crazy, crash into a wall — anything but something fucking cookie-cutter."
There's no question that he succeeded in exactly that.
As a trumpet player since I was six-years-old (when my uncle bought me a pocket trumpet and taught me to play) and someone who paid for college playing horn, I've always been more of a fan of the more muscular players in the canon: Maynard Ferguson, Clifford Brown, Cat Anderson and the bold, loud, high note, fast fingered style.
Just recently, I've picked my horn back up and am getting the chops back into shape. Realizing that my five years as host of The Moth had left me a bit artistically lazy, going back to my beginnings seemed like a good idea. In my fifties, I'm discovering that Miles's more laid back playing really appeals to me in ways it never did before. Thus, Miles Ahead came at exactly the right time for me.
The film is much like Davis's work - understated but surprising, weaving in and out of the construct of a standard biopic but breaking all of the rules at the same time. Doling out bite size pieces of character that return in stronger ways. Both Cheadle and McGregor are almost magical in their performances and the choices in transitions as well as which music to underscore which moments indicates that Cheadle is as amazing a directing talent as he is onscreen.
If you are or have ever been a fan of jazz (or 'social music' as Miles would have it), this is a must-see film. If you hate jazz music (heathen!) but love a tale of unlikely redemption, you should check it out. I can almost promise that as soon as you finish it, you'll hop online and want to listen to Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain just to continue the ride.