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Conversation between friends about Miles Davis – the movie, the music and the man

When the biopic “Miles Ahead,” which stars Don Cheadle and seeks to capture a moment in time from the life of jazz legend Miles Davis came out, News Arts Editor Jeff Simon and Pop Music Critic Jeff Miers had plenty to say about it.

So they said it … to each other in a Facebook chat.

An edited version of their conversation follows.

Jeff Miers: You had much more trepidation going into this than I did. What were your concerns? And did the film confirm those concerns, challenge them, or a little bit of both?

Jeff Simon: I have never before approached a movie with that weird combination of anticipation and raw, throbbing dread.

As hard as it was to get Billie Holiday right – or Chet Baker – both of them offer heroin addiction to deal with and a kind of martyrdom. Cheadle actually wanted to make a movie about an artist he worshiped. But at the same time, one he understood could be the (expletive) to end all (expletives). That’s why I was happily surprised. The love and some of the respect are there. And even a tiny amount of truth about what a difficult person he was.

Forgive me for telling here that story I’ve bored you to tears with – how Miles and his mid-’60‘s quintet played the Royal Arms and Miles made merciless mockery of the last-minute fill-in bass player Cecil McBee he’d had to bring in because Ron Carter stayed back in Manhattan sick.

Before that night, I’d have subscribed to Tom Hanks’ line – “There’s no CRYING in baseball!” I’d have said before that night, there’s no CRYING in jazz either. Until I saw Miles Davis decimate a bass player’s ego in front of a club full of fans and leave his eyes glistening with tears while he took his solo.

Miers: Miles was a hard man. There are more than enough accounts corroborating that. I have to agree with you regarding Cheadle: the reverence he feels for Miles is clear, and as someone who views Miles as a major constellation in his sky, I loved seeing that.

However, there did seem to be some compromise here. There have been accusations that the portrayal of Miles as a gangster figure involved in shoot-outs with record label-hired goons is a racist depiction. Much of what we see portrayed in the film didn’t happen, or at least, didn’t happen in quite the way the script would have us believe.

That said, there’s a book called “Miles to Go,” by Chris Murphy, who was Miles’ personal assistant during the “lost years” covered in the film, and in that book, we see a Miles much like the one depicted by Cheadle. A recluse, given to crippling paranoia, no doubt aided by the prodigious amounts of cocaine he was inhaling, a genius musician who had let his chops slide, and a man whose old friends in the jazz world had largely abandoned him.

I think Cheadle got that part right, particularly the dark and dingy interior of the brownstone, the pain in his hips that was gradually driving Miles nuts, and the antipathy he felt toward the white-controlled record business. Thoughts?

Simon: Well, yeah. But I think the capitulation here to the money types is, most importantly, to Miles’ family.

It took Cheadle 10 years to get the movie made. It was Miles’ nephew Vince Wilburn who first suggested that Cheadle would be perfect to play Miles. The family is listed as major production forces behind the movie. They knew that whatever they could do to tell a story about a “gangsta” Miles would go a long way toward filling seats with exactly the young audience – especially young black audience – he wanted to reach when he made “Bitches’ Brew.”

If he’d told the story about Miles and his wife Betty – who got him to dress as “psychedelic Miles” and whom Miles suspected of cheating on him with Jimi Hendrix – he wouldn’t have looked like a “gangsta” but like a great man trying foolishly to hang on to departing youth. He thought originally that what the world wanted from him should be called “Directions in Music by Miles Davis.” That’s what Columbia called those albums.

A great movie could have been made out of the POWER that women had over him in his life – Betty in being the midwife for “Bitches Brew,” his later wife Cicely Tyson, whom he credits with being the one to get him off drugs and out into the world after the period the film is about.

But that’s not the story that Miles’ family wants to tell – the story about “gangsta” Miles, shooting up executive offices and racing through Manhattan after stolen music. His wife preceding Betty – Frances – is the one who gets a credit at the end of the movie. She’s the one he hankers for as his true love in the movie. Maybe she was. Who knows?

I think that Betty Davis and Cicely Tyson were vastly more powerful influences in his life. And each, in their way, would have made for a great cinematic story. But there isn’t an ounce of “gangsta” in being henpecked and cuckolded; or, for that matter, of being forced to clean up your act by the love of a strong woman who was, in her own right, a truly great performer.

I don’t doubt that he was a paranoid mess during the period the film is about. I give Cheadle enormous credit for showing it to us. I think he was more susceptible to the influence of others than either he or his biggest fans liked to let on. Especially if those others happened to be women who loved him.

The way Cheadle tells the tale it’s all a “movie.” Man. I’d have loved to hear what Miles would say watching his life turned into such an everyday Hollywood “movie.”

Miers: I think he’d be pretty upset. That said, I thought Cheadle inhabited that version of Miles pretty powerfully. I believed him. Of course, I’m routinely guilty of romanticizing Miles because his music has had such a radical effect on the way I hear and think about and play music. I’m as bad as Cheadle.

You are right on the money about both Betty And Cecily. Betty in particular gave Miles the funk by turning him on to Sly Stone and Hendrix. It was Miles’ genius to add a lot of the European influences to that funky stew, for sure.

What’s your opinion of the way the music was handled in the film?

Simon: I was OK with it except that with things like this, music is bound to receive short shrift. To me the most dramatic moment in his life is when he and Gil Evans decide to make “Sketches of Spain” together. As a listener – and, yes, fan – it was the purest head-shaker moment of my musical life.

The Miles and Gil collaboration that preceded it was “Porgy and Bess” and because of the big MGM movie, that surprised no one. But when the hippest human being in the world decided to collaborate with his friend and mentor on an album of Spanish music – including a whole movement of a concerto by Joaquin Rodrigo – it was literally shocking. And the shock was compounded by how utterly gorgeous the whole disc was. To have “Solea” given such short shrift on the sound track record was scandalous.

And don’t tell me either that Miles didn’t know it was pronounced “Soul-ay-a” and not “Soul-eee-a” the way the film would have it. There was a lot of street in Miles, granted – especially the gloriously obscene way he talked in interviews and such – but he also went to Juilliard. And he had spent his share of time abroad, especially in Europe. He’d have known how to pronounce a Spanish word. He wouldn’t have sounded “gangsta.” He’d have sounded like the sophisticated man that he was.

It would have been sensational if Cheadle had figured out a way in the dialogue to get across to the audience how astonishing his music once was and how sublime the best of it remains. But, as with so many things, it seems, the movie preferred to be about “the music business” more than the “music.” It’s just another way of dumbing down a man who, for two decades, was an intuitive jazz genius.

Another hugely dramatic thing in Miles’ life that the movie has no way to deal with is the passing idea on the part of a lot of people (Gil Evans, for one) that Miles and Jimi Hendrix might have had amazing things to say to each other in a recording studio.

What do YOU think of that?

Miers: Man, I can only imagine what that could’ve been like. And again, that was Betty. She turned him on to Hendrix, and then Miles started to really celebrate the electric guitar in his music. Think about it – John McLaughlin, Pete Cosey, John Scofield, Foley, Robben Ford, Mike Stern – all of them did some of their best work with Miles.

It’s easy to criticize “Miles Ahead” because it does make a neatly wrapped Hollywood spectacle out of Miles’ life, or at least, that particular period of Miles’ life. But I also think the movie celebrates the music, as often as a film of its type possibly can. And I hope that young people who might only have heard the name see this movie, and then investigate further. I fell in love with Miles very young. It has been a gift that keeps on giving ever since. I hope Cheadle’s film is the start of a lifelong relationship with Miles’ music for some people.

And as cheesy as it was, I loved the final scene in the film, when Cheadle/Miles is finally back on stage and killing it, and we see a few generations of fantastic musicians – Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock alongside Robert Glasper and Antonio Sanchez and Esperanza Spalding – celebrating Miles together. It’s a Hollywood ending, but I fell for it, willingly, because it suggests some hope for the musical future.

Simon: You saw more in that ending than I did but, as always, I’m with you. Alfred North Whitehead said: “It is the business of the future to be dangerous.”

No life in jazz ever made that clearer than Miles Davis’. I just wish the movie hadn’t been so outrageous sometimes that it might as well have been science fiction. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if the movie did indeed make a whole new generation of listeners for his best work?

Then they too can imagine what might have happened if Miles had been able to make records with the pop musicians he so admired – Hendrix and Prince – as tragic as that is to think of now.

Miers: Amen.

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