Filmmakers find in­spi­ra­tion in Miles Davis, Civil War sol­dier

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - MOVIE LISTINGS - By John Bei­fuss

“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.

SONY PIC­TURES CLAS­SICS

COUR­TESY OF HAN­NOVER HOUSE

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