One of the greatest jazz anecdotes I know is about Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Holiday listened as another musician bitterly denounced Armstrong in a concert performance as an “Uncle Tom.” Holiday didn’t disagree but added, with a world of profound understanding that annihilated all other judgment, “Louis Toms from the heart.”
Don Cheadle’s movie “Miles Ahead” is a travesty of Miles Davis.
See it anyway. Even if you revere Davis’ music as so many of us do. It’s a travesty, but as Holiday might have it, “from the heart.” Its love and reverence are pure, if very little else is. Cheadle’s performance is magnificent – with that perpetually hoarse whisper that was caused by Davis’ temperamentally failing to heed a post-surgical admonition not to raise his voice afterward.
But that’s just mimicry. As brilliantly as anyone is ever likely to in a movie, Cheadle gets Davis as an aging man – a hobbling guy who walked “like an old man with bad feet” (as one of his young musicians put it), a skilled amateur boxer whose gloriously profane way of expressing himself verbally was so eloquently obscene that it was a majestic American dialect all to itself.
What Cheadle gets, bless him, is that Davis, as a human being, was an act – not a fake, by any means, but by the point in his life covered by this film, he was a legend. That is, like an actor playing a role. In the world that knew him at all, his was a performance given by a hopelessly dramatic man 24/7 – obscene, tempestuous, uncompromising, in perpetual touch with both vulnerabilities and furies within – for which, listen to the music. Herbie Hancock, his longtime pianist in the 1960s, used to advise anyone attending a Davis gig to get there for the first tune of the first set to hear every frustration of his day erupting out of his horn. On that first up-tempo number – “Joshua” or “Milestones” – his playing could take the top of your head off.
There is so much I admire about “Miles Ahead,” as utterly ludicrous as its basic plot is – Cheadle’s mimicking of Davis’ majestic hoarseness and legendary volatility, and especially, his brilliant choice of the worst period of his life to concentrate on. This is the period from 1970-1975, when Davis stopped performing and holed up in his apartment doing drugs, nursing psychological wounds and health problems.
The number of real stories raised by this movie’s purview is massive – hundreds easily among those who knew the great jazz musician. Everyone who knows anything about him will spot dozens of them untouched, as well as errors made, anachronisms and sillinesses. In his autobiography (called “Miles,” as he was universally known), he admitted that very few saw him during this time.
What we have here is Davis, in his lost years, prowling nocturnal Manhattan in the company of an ambitious would-be Rolling Stone profiler (Ewan McGregor) in search of a tape stolen from his apartment.
It was a creative and remarkable choice on Cheadle’s part to deal with this chronological slough of despond (as John Bunyan might have called it) in Davis’ life, not to mention the mountain range of achievement surrounding it. It’s right up there with Cheadle’s performance.
But the tale of a “gangsta” Davis racing around in his Jaguar trying to retrieve the stolen tape is pure pathetic Hollywood B.S. meant to appeal to a mass movie audience. You can practically hear his eloquently, raspy scoffing from here on this side of the eternal divide.
But let’s get real here. Cheadle spent a noble decade getting this movie financed and made. He’d never have been able to either pay for it or get the family cooperation he did without “Miles as a gangsta.” It’s there that Cheadle ever-so-slyly slips a terrific joke into his film. When we finally hear the tape that supposedly caused all that gunfire and squealing Jaguar tires on Manhattan streets, it is not Davis playing the trumpet, but rather the organ, as he did on “He Loved Him Madly,” some of the worst and most pointless Davis on record.
I saw Davis perform twice in Buffalo. Once I witnessed the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen in a lifetime of haunting jazz clubs – Davis pointing at, sneering and laughing at one of his own musicians while the man soloed. He caused such despair in the man as he played that there were tears in his eyes during his solo. (The regular bassist, Ron Carter, was home ill in Manhattan. )
It was horrifying to watch. And incomprehensible. When people sometimes called him “The Prince of Darkness,” they weren’t kidding. He was, at worst, a very dark and angry man. Gangsta, hell; he was capable of being a monster at his worst. I know because I saw it.
There’s none of that here. The film indulges one of Davis’ fictions about himself – that he was both an artist and pop musician in equal proportion – to please his family. They’re listed among the producers. So is one of his ex-wives, Frances Taylor, portrayed in the film as his gorgeous true love.
How much richer and more moving this movie might have been if we’d seen a fictionalization of the artist’s life with uninhibited wife Betty, the “bitch” of “Bitches Brew” or, especially, with wife Cicely Tyson, whom he credits with getting him off drugs.
But then who could even imagine either one of them involved intimately with this film?
See it for what it is. It’s enjoyable American musical mythology. Understand how much it isn’t but, in a perfect world, might have been.