Miles Ahead

MILES AHEAD, biopic, rated R, Vi­o­let Crown, 3 chiles

Pasatiempo - - ADVERTISEMENT - — Jonathan Richards

Miles Davis fixes a nar­row stare on the jour­nal­ist who has wan­gled his way into his town­house say­ing he’s there to in­ter­view him for Rolling Stone. “If you’re go­ing to tell a story,” Miles snarls, “come with some at­ti­tude, man!”

This ad­vice would seem to have burst straight from the heart of the man who pro­duced, co-wrote, and di­rected this walk on the wild side of the jazz leg­end, and also plays the ti­tle role. That man is Don Chea­dle, who has been an­gling and pre­par­ing to make this movie for the bet­ter part of a decade. Miles Ahead has at­ti­tude up the wa­zoo. You weren’t ex­pect­ing a biopic on the “Birth of the Cool” icon to fea­ture shootouts and car chases? Well, no­body ever said Miles was go­ing to be pre­dictable.

Chea­dle’s movie comes laced with plenty of great Miles Davis mu­sic, but he has cho­sen to steer clear of an over­view of the trum­pet leg­end’s life arc with stops at his mu­si­cal mile­stones. In­stead, Chea­dle has set the story at the end of the lost years in the back side of the ’70s, when Davis be­came a recluse and stopped per­form­ing and record­ing al­to­gether. Dur­ing that stretch, he skulked in his town­house, hoover­ing co­caine up his nose, smok­ing end­less packs of cig­a­rettes, nurs­ing an in­jured hip, and glar­ing with a bale­ful eye at his idle trum­pet.

Miles Ahead bears a strik­ing struc­tural sim­i­lar­ity to Born to be Blue, the Chet Baker biopic that is hit­ting the­aters con­cur­rently. Both films pick up their man at a low in his ca­reer; both tog­gle back and forth be­tween that present and an ear­lier pe­riod when the mu­sic was pour­ing from the trum­pet like wa­ter from a moun­tain spring, the girls were lin­ing up, and life was rich with prom­ise. Both sto­ries fea­ture a great love who sac­ri­fices her ca­reer for her man and finds it a bad bar­gain.

Davis’ woman is the dancer Frances Tay­lor (Emay­atzy Corinealdi), whose face adorns the cover of his 1961 al­bum Some­day My Prince Will Come. Corinealdi gives an el­e­gant, emo­tion­ally grounded per­for­mance that coun­ter­points Chea­dle’s volatile Davis, and her al­bum cover pro­vides a door to take him back in time, just as a biopic-within-a-biopic de­vice does in the Baker movie. But Baker doesn’t get any car chases.

Chea­dle’s ap­proach to the Davis story is to let his imag­i­na­tion rip, cre­at­ing some­thing along the lines of a movie he fig­ures Miles would have en­joyed be­ing in. Chea­dle told Rolling Stone he de­cided “to make a movie about this dude as a gang­ster — ’cause that’s how I feel about Miles Davis.”

Chea­dle couldn’t get fi­nanc­ing for t he movie with­out a white co-star. En­ter Ewan McGre­gor, and a plot de­vice about a jour­nal­ist named Dave Brill try­ing to get an in­ter­view with the “Howard Hughes of Jazz.” In a movie that rev­els in its own ex­u­ber­ant orig­i­nal­ity, this plays like lead an­kle weights. It’s a char­ac­ter that never quite fits. McGre­gor, fine ac­tor that he is, can’t over­come the sad­dle of be­ing a racist fi­nanc­ing de­vice, a bur­den that strikes the sen­si­bil­i­ties all the more sourly in this year of #Os­carsSoWhite.

Chea­dle, mak­ing his de­but be­hind the cam­era, is as solid there as he is in front of it. A mu­si­cian in his own right (he plays the sax­o­phone, and stud­ied trum­pet with Wyn­ton Marsalis to pre­pare for this role), he makes the mu­sic-mak­ing cred­i­ble, and doesn’t cheat on the Davis sound; that’s Miles’ mu­sic com­ing out on the sound­track. And while the ac­tor may not be a dead ringer phys­i­cally for the jazzman (Davis him­self dis­liked the term jazz, pre­fer­ring “so­cial mu­sic”), he has you be­liev­ing you’re watch­ing Miles be­fore many frames have passed through the pro­jec­tor. His el­der Davis sweats and snarls, and oc­ca­sion­ally lets a flash of wit light the screen. His younger in­car­na­tion shows the cool and the com­mand of the clean-cut kid, with those mo­ments that re­veal the man’s in­se­cu­rity. “This is the guy who you think is the coolest dude in the world,” Chea­dle has said, “and he talks about not know­ing if it was cooler to tap his whole foot, or to tap his foot in­side of his shoe.”

Now, back to the car chase. Chea­dle and co-writer Steven Baigel­man have come up with a great MacGuf­fin, a tape record­ing of a se­cret Davis stu­dio ses­sion for a pos­si­ble comeback al­bum that un­scrupu­lous Columbia Records pro­ducer Harper Hamil­ton (a hi­lar­i­ously sleazy Michael Stuhlberg) would kill (lit­er­ally) to get his hands on. That tape gets stolen, and stolen back, and that’s when the rub­ber hits the road and the bul­lets fly, and the drama­tis per­sonae wind up in a con­fronta­tion at a box­ing match, with 1980 Miles ac­cost­ing Hamil­ton while his 1940s self blows the trum­pet in the ring.

If you’re won­der­ing, that never hap­pened. But some­how it feels right.

Breeches brew: Don Chea­dle

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