Doing a satisfying movie about Miles Davis seems impossible.
Davis himself was way too cool, elusive (will-of-the-wisp) and too spontaneous a figure to lend himself to easy description and standard narratives. His mountain of artistic output (from be-bop, Birth Of cool, to Electric Miles, Grammys, and Induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) defies a revisionist 2 hour treatment. Furthermore, his own often prickly/private personality fought examination and disdained easy labels.
Therefore, its understandable that the writers/creators of Miles Ahead decided against the predictable spectacle of a standard Hollywood boiler-plate rags-to-riches jazz biopic in favor of more modest slice-of life treatment. Yet, even in watching the film with smaller expectations, I still found “Miles Ahead” an original but ultimately unsatisfying cinematic tease into the rich life of Miles Davis.
The film spotlights a period during the late 1970s where Miles is a largely lazy, drugg-ed out hermit who spends his time calling into local jazz radio and complaining about them playing cuts of Sketches of Spain instead of Kind of Blue. The decision to set the film in the late 70s perplexed me. Why would a film-maker would want to highlight a 24-48 hour period which was atypically fallow in the career of such a creative and prolific artist? it would be like doing a film on Mohammed Ali or Evil Knievel while they were in the hospital laid-up after an injury. Interesting perhaps for a scene or so but not extended out into 2 hours!
If the writers wanted to use the film examine artistic block, they do Davis a disfavor by casting him as a sedentary hermit. He’s depicted as a man of leisure, drug-addled, lethargic and who only occasionally glances at his trumpet or fusses over some master session mix tapes. I would have preferred A more dramatic approach; Miles struggling with his procrastination, showing doubt or flashes of temper, hitting both bum-notes literally and figuratively in his creative inspiration. Frustratingly, in this film,his driving inspiration is more to get high than play great jazz.
The story begins with aspiring Rolling stone writer (portrayed by Ewan Mcgregor) shows up at Davis’ door in search of the story of Miles’ comeback. The following few scenes offer several clever smart-aleck quips by Miles about music and celebrity. Don Cheadle does a great job in embodying the prickly, fire-cracker personality of the Trumpeter. The voice (rasp), movement, and look also seem a pretty spot on match. Initially, the rapport of Davis and the reporter seems fun, (if with Macgregor’s accent more than a tad quirky) and spontaneous. Unfortunately, after some interesting set-up, and a few fiery gun-waving dust-ups at Davis’ local record label, the film veers wildly off course into a clumsy caper film. Scenes showing Davis try to score coke at a local college, signing a few autographs, and a gun-toting car chase in quest of his stolen session master tapes seem worthier of a story about a more minor jazz figure and more sub-plot material than main action.
Along the way, are some flashbacks about a lost-love/muse and earlier “birth of cool” sessions which do serve to try and show some glossy perspective on the broader fabric of Miles life. However, I found these scenes largely distracted and the nostalgic mood seemed out of place with the of-the-moment feel of the rest of the film.
There is also some scenes thrown-in with a young an up-and-coming jazz trumpeter for Miles to supposedly mentor. The story could have done more showcased this relationship more (Miles as teacher and student as muse to get Davis’ spark back). Despite this, the narrative completely forgets the young jazz newbie at the end and I was left wondering what happened to him.
In the final frames of the movie, we are finally allowed into the secret of the stolen master tapes. We hear what we have been waiting for for 1:45 hours. The result proves as auditorilly underwhelming and anti-climactic as the story which has lead up to his discovery.
Ultimately, I found the movie played more like a respectable character sketch than a full-treatment. To me, Davis is a towering figure in jazz. He had such high highs and low lows, I wanted a film with more of an emotional journey and dramatic pay-off. I guess I wanted a cinematic experience as inspired as “My Funny Valentine” what I got instead was just a cinematic warm-up.