The film Miles Ahead is a mosaic, flashback-filled ride -- some fictional, some reality -- through some of the darkest times in Miles Davis’s life during a five-year creative slump.
It's difficult to define it as a genre film. It doesn’t fit the cliché music biopic mold that examines a musician through his life; starting with a childhood trauma, on to a creative musical peak, and ending with his inevitable troubled genius downfall spurred on by the consummate excess of drugs, women and more drugs.
Don Cheadle used the hilarious Judd Apatow produced film Walk Hard, The Dewey Cox Story, which spoofs the typical music biopic, as instructive of what not to do. Miles Ahead certainly is not a creative documentary either like the brilliantly crafted story of Kurt Cobain in Montage of Heck.
Instead, Miles Ahead follows several overused formulas all rolled into one movie: the interracial buddy film with the reluctant friendship of Cheadle and Ewan McGregor's character as a convenient plot vehicle (in the vein of An Officer and a Gentleman or Lethal Weapon); a story of lost love; a cops-and-robber style chase; and the trials of an outlaw genius who can only be redeemed by his craft. Where Miles Ahead succeeds (the accompanying soundtrack due out May 27th, by Robert Glasper, who scored the film, acts as an extension of the film) is ironically in some of those easy tropes.
The complicated love story, marked by abuse, between Frances Davis (who co-executive produced the film) and Miles drives the narrative. Cheadle and actress Emayatzy Corinealdi are a stunning couple on screen in the way that the real life Frances and Miles turned heads everywhere they went.
And though there were many women after Frances, including Betty Davis and Cicely Tyson that were hugely impactful personally and musically on his life, it's easy to see why Miles considered her the one that got away. He lamented in his 1990 autobiography: "Frances is the best wife I ever had and whoever gets her is a lucky motherfucker."
While I kept thinking directors could have used Miles and his arranger Gil Evans's real life symbiotic relationship if it was going to be an interracial male bonding film, that combination would have lacked the drama. McGregor as the annoying Rolling Stone reporter provides the reminder for why Miles chose to take a creative break from an industry where media members misunderstood him and record companies looked to pimp him.
The vehicle for Cheadle to outline the spirit of Miles is the cops-and-robber theme where Cheadle as Miles spends much of the film cursing out his greedy and racist record label and shooting and ducking bullets to retrieve his stolen session tape. While Cheadle never disappoints as an actor and the chase scenes are a vehicle that will get the uninitiated excited about the movie and subsequently Miles and his music, the scenes take time away from both the personality and the music of Miles.
At times we get flashes of his personality when Cheadle tells musicians in a jam session to be "wrong and strong" if they're going to make a mistake, or when he says someone is "cleaner than a broke dick dog." A thinker, Miles was less about bombast and more about brutal honesty -- even about his own shortcomings. Many moments have the Miles that Cheadle plays as an outlaw without the context for his resistance and rebellion.
Still, despite the cliches, the Hollywood formulas and the frustrations with the plot, somehow and for some reason, I kept going to see it again and again. Maybe, it was the music.
"Jazz is the musical expression of the triumph of the Negro spirit. Being constantly creative is how he remains free. Otherwise the dehumanizing portrait America has placed on him will triumph."--from the film, The Cry of Jazz, 1959.
“I got into some controversy with the Grammy Awards people in 1971 by saying that most of the awards went to white people copying black people’s shit, sorry-assed imitations rather than the real music. I said we ought to give out Mammy Awards to black artists” –Miles: The Autobiography with Quincy Troupe.
Miles -- the son of a blues musician mother and a father who followed Marcus Garvey and became a wealthy dentist -- was notoriously silver-tongued about white music critics who claimed they “discovered” a new art form, whether it was jazz, be-bop, hard-bop, or jazz-rock fusion, as if it hadn't been happening for awhile by the time they found it. Miles led bands that changed the course and trends of music six times over. But more than a musical pioneer he was a mentor and teacher to some of the best in the business, including young greats like John Coltrane, Horace Silver, Ricky Wellman and Ron Carter.
Cheadle hints at Miles's need to evolve and involve his music with what was going on at the time. He didn't believe in moving backwards. In the film, he rejects the labeling that critics have put on the music and refers to it as "social music." In real life, Miles's creative hiatus was brought on partly by sickle cell anemia and arthritis, pain from hip replacement surgery and a growing addiction to an assortment of drugs.
The ending scene of the film is a jam session -- a vision of what could have been in Miles's imagination and what is happening in the constant creations in black music. The jam session is led by Cheadle (who plays the trumpet, but was coached on it for the film) and features Robert Glasper, Antonio Sanchez on drums, Esperanza Spalding on bass, Gary Clark Jr. on guitar, and two former sidemen for Miles, Herbie Hancock on keyboards and Wayne Shorter on saxophone.
The ending is about the survival of the spirit against all odds. The music acts as the documentation of the history of black people in America that has been either ignored or revised. Miles led the way to show that despite it all, there's the possibility of being the absolute best at your craft, being black, proud and outspoken and surviving with your dignity intact.
In a 1969 session, Miles pointed to an electric piano, something that was not seen then in a jazz session. It was a new sound and musicians were distrustful. Miles wasn't. He said, "You've never even seen that, have you? Well, everything is beautiful. Everything is beautiful."
Everything's Beautiful is the title of the Robert Glasper soundtrack that acts as an extension of the movie. With the majority of the production done by Glasper and Rashad Ringo Smith, the album is one continuous loop of music, each song leading into the next. There are no throwaways on the 11-track album that ranges in genres from the haunting vocals of soul singer Laura Mvula to the funky instrumentals of "Milestones" featuring Georgia Ann Muldrow, the pretty vocals of the women of KING on "Song for Selim" and gospel moans on "Little Church", featuring the neo-soul quartet Hiatus Kaiyote.
The guests on the album range from Stevie Wonder playing the harmonica on "Right on Brotha," produced by DJ Spinna, Ledisi and John Scofield on "I'm Leaving You," Illa J, J. Dilla's younger brother on "They Can't Hold Me Down," every vocalists favorite vocalist Bilal on "Ghetto Walkin", which features a sample from Miles's "The Ghetto Walk," the ill rapping of Phonte, one half of Little Brother, on "Violets," which samples the masterpiece "Blue in Green," by Miles, "Maiysha" which features vocals from Erykah Badu and a sample from the original "Maiysha" by Miles.
Miles's voice, his artwork on the cover, and his music is interwoven throughout the Glasper album. The album is a testament to a spirit that lives on as an uncompromising visionary and cultural icon.
At the end of the film, the date of Miles's birth flashes across the screen, "May 26, 1926 - " but his death date is left out, presumably because Miles's otherworldly talents are still evolving and influencing new musicians. It's both a fitting ending and beginning for a man that would have been 90 this week, but never really died at all.