Filmmakers find inspiration in Miles Davis, Civil War soldier
“Elvis & Nixon” isn’t the only film opening this week with a historical background. Here are reviews of two other new movies, each inspired by a real person.
‘MILES AHEAD’ Rated R for strong profanity, the depiction of drug use, sexual content and nudity, and brief violence.
Cinema, like jazz, benefits from artists who understand both improvisation and discipline. Such an artist is Don Cheadle, a tuning fork of an actor whose best performances (“Boogie Nights,” “Devil in a Blue Dress”) seem to vibrate with the contradictory yet complementary pleasures of freedom and tension.
Cheadle is the producer, director, co-screenwriter (with Steven Baigelman) and star of “Miles Ahead,” a fanciful misadventure set in 1979, near the end of Miles Davis’ six-year retreat from public music-making, when the jazz trumpet genius was a drug addict and a recluse, his bad habits and his seclusion enabled by the generous retainer provided by his record label, Columbia.
Cheadle is a captivating Davis: He’s lean and hungry and ornery, with unruly Jheri-curled hair and a mystical cool-cat aura. If we’re always aware that we’re watching an actor in a phony scenario rather than scenes from a life, well, the movie has an answer for that. “I’m a Gemini, so I’m two people, anyway,” explains Davis/cheadle.
This simultaneity becomes especially manifest during an end-credits public concert, in which Cheadle, in his Miles disguise, plays trumpet alongside new artists (including Esperanza Spalding) and veterans Don Cheadle, producer, director and co-screenwriter of “Miles Ahead,” is also the film’s star, portraying Miles Davis in a fanciful misadventure set in 1979 while the jazz trumpet genius was a recluse struggling with drugs. of the classic Davis bands (Herbie Hancock, for example). He wears a jacket emblazoned with the brand “#Socialmusic,” which effectively makes Davis a shill for the movie’s social media campaign, a proposition that bugs me. Except, of course, it’s not really Davis but Cheadle-as-davis who is promoting the hashtag, taken from Davis’ preferred term for jazz. (As Davis says in the film: “I don’t like that word ‘jazz.’ It’s ‘social music.’”) This sequence makes the case that Davis remains a vital presence in music, even 15 years after his death.
A dream project for Cheadle, “Miles Ahead,” to its credit, is not a traditional movie biography. It contains a few flashbacks to the early 1960s, when Davis was a clean-cut hipster in a skinny tie and sharp suit working on such classic albums as “Sketches of Spain” (the music’s toreador tones presage combat to come), but it mostly covers just a few hours in 1979, as Davis — accompanied by an initially obnoxious, ultimately sympathetic reporter (Ewan Mcgregor) — emerges from his “disheveled lair” of a New York brownstone to score coke from a college student, intimidate a dishonest promoter (Michael Stuhlbarg), exchange gunfire with a bodyguard and otherwise misbehave with the immunity afforded to fools and angels. Occasionally, he remembers his true love, Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi), whose portrait appears on the cover of Davis’ 1961 album, “Someday My Prince Will Come”; at one point, he demonstrates his erudition with critiques of the “revolutionaries” and “improvisers” he admires, including Chopin. His piratical conduct is accompanied by an increasingly pronounced limp, evidence of a degenerative hip disorder.
At times, the movie’s mix of historical touchstones and antic fantasy suggests the influence of the Coen brothers, whose films — “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Hail, Caesar!” — suggest that fiction and nonfiction are as permeable and connectable as the skins of soap bubbles. Yet the movie’s initially agreeable larkiness eventually leaves the viewer craving something more. This is not because a movie about Davis, a genius, needs to be heavy but because the gap between Davis’ innovations and this admirable yet nonessential movie is so substantial.
“Miles Ahead” is exclusively at the Malco Ridgeway Cinema Grill. ‘UNION BOUND’ Not rated; contains some violence, disturbing images and strong language. ★★
The text at the start of the Civil War drama “Union Bound” introduces moviegoers to “Sargent Joseph E. Hoover.” Not “Sergeant” or “Sgt.” but “Sargent,” as in (for example) Dick Sargent, the replacement Darrin on “Bewitched.” This lack of attention to detail does not bode well for a low-budget independent production that managed to wrangle hundreds of war re-enactors for an impressive battle scene yet did not think to engage a copy editor.
Opening this weekend in Memphis and other cities that the filmmakers hope will be sympathetic to a Civil War story that is uplifting rather than appalling, “Union Bound” casts Sean Stone as Hoover, a real-life Union soldier whose diaries chronicled his 1864 escape from a South Carolina prison camp and his return to the North with the help of slaves along the Underground Railroad.
Apparently motivated by a desire to promote this message of racial cooperation, director Harvey Lowry and writer John Errington have crafted a film that is quite handsome, given its meager resources (the North Carolina locations are beautiful), but with the misplaced priorities of a civil rights parable that is more interested in Miss Daisy than in her driver. In fact, Hoover and his Yankee pal (Randy Wayne) are such dull companions that it’s a relief when the two escapees stumble upon their first slave shanty. That relief is extinguished when the slaves immediately break into dialect — the refugees are called “ref’gees” and “Yankee demons” — that may not be inaccurate, as far as it goes, but that could have been presented less clumsily.
A few bad apples aside, the slaves are so decent and dedicated to helping the Yankee interlopers that one might think that assisting white folks is their natural talent. “You’re the bravest man I’ve ever known,” Hoover tells the slave Jim Young (Tank Jones), but this bravery does poor Jim no good, at least not in this life.
“Union Bound” is at the Malco Collierville Towne 16 and Wolfchase Galleria Cinema 8.