Three stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity, nudity, drug use and flashes of violence
By Derrick Bang
Following an astonishing prolific decade of studio work — with 32 (!) albums released on Prestige, Blue Note and Columbia during the 1950s — Miles Davis hit mainstream acclaim with 1959’s now-legendary Kind of Blue, followed in quick succession by Sketches of Spain and Someday My Prince Will Come, the latter inspired by his wife Frances, who was pictured on the LP cover.
|Don Cheadle's performance as Miles Davis is so spot-on that it's eerie, down to the|
smallest details. Alas, the film that surrounds this superb acting isn't nearly as satisfying.
Those forever remained the go-to albums for many of Davis’ most enthusiastic fans, much to the jazz trumpeter/composer’s ongoing annoyance. He hated looking back, and he absolutely hated being “defined” by his 1950s/early ’60s sound; God forbid that one should even pigeonhole his work by calling it “jazz.”
“Jazz is an Uncle Tom word,” he famously said, during a December 1969 Rolling Stone interview. “It’s a white folks word.” When pressed, he insisted that rock and jazz both deserved to be termed “social music.”
Like most truly inquisitive artists, Davis thrived on exploring and challenging music’s very essence and form. His output during the latter 1960s and early ’70s became increasingly outré, unmelodic and challenging for even the most patient listener: wild, harsh, flamboyant, unrestrained — granted, always technically proficient — dissonant and cacophonous.
As if he were trying to be provocative, and daring people to dislike the result.
The same can be said of Don Cheadle’s aggressively weird “cinematic reflection” on Davis’ life and career ... or, at least, some portions thereof. This project obviously is a labor of love for Cheadle, who directed, stars, co-produced and co-wrote the script (the latter credit shared with Steven Baigelman, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson).
The result is, by turns, celebratory, random and maddening: as gleefully bizarre and uncompromising as much of Davis’ latter-day music. To be sure, the film is anchored by Cheadle’s flat-out astonishing portrayal of Davis: less an acting challenge and far more some sort of full-immersion experience, as if the actor somehow figured out a way to “wear” Davis, like a suit of clothes.
From the raspy voice to the smug, condescending attitude and flashes of hot-tempered anger; from the often clumsy gait that seemed so unusual, contrasted with the always loving embrace with which Davis handled his horn ... it’s positively spooky.
Whether Cheadle’s riveting performance is sufficient compensation for the bizarre narrative style, though ... that’ll be up to individual viewers.
Davis surprised the world with a lengthy “retirement” from 1975 through ’79, during which time he essentially became a hermit who rarely left his Upper West Side New York apartment. Cheadle’s film begins with Davis’ cautious re-emergence, an event marked by a fancy studio interview with an off-camera questioner — we recognize Ewan McGregor’s voice — whose approach does not find favor with his subject.
“If you gotta tell a story,” Davis grouses, in that loud, harsh whisper, “come with some attitude.”
Okay, fine, the other guy says, capitulating. How would you tell it?
Cheadle favors us with Davis’ dead-man stare, which holds for a long moment, until he raises the trumpet. And then...
And then it’s Alice through the looking-glass, and we’re lost in Wonderland, doing our best to make sense of what comes next.
Things seem ordinary enough at first, as if a recent flashback: Davis shambles through his clutter-laden home, putters with a tape deck while listening to the radio, snatches up the phone and gets a direct line to the DJ who just played something from Kind of Blue and had the temerity to extol it.
A knock on the door: an unannounced Rolling Stone journalist — McGregor, as Dave Brill — as disheveled as Davis, seeking an exclusive interview. Davis isn’t interested; he’s much more concerned about getting his next fat check from Columbia, in order to maintain his isolated, coke-fueled lifestyle. (Columbia Records did, in fact, put Davis on a “special retainer” during his nearly six years of isolation.)
But the gravy train is about to stop; the folks at Columbia are tired of waiting for the “new album” Davis claims to have been working on ... and, indeed, Brill sees the jazz giant carefully place a huge tape reel in a locked drawer. So, then it’s off to Columbia, Brill following like a dutiful puppy, where Davis’ angry financial demands are witnessed with amusement by smarmy music rep Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is chaperoning “the next great young horn player” (Keith Stanfield).
Then — blink! — guns are drawn, shots are fired, cocaine drifts into small snow banks, and suddenly everybody is after the aforementioned tape: a crazed, cacophonous LSD trip laced with all manner of oddballs, and feeling very much like the weird journeys into dementia recalled from Into the Night, After Hours and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
At the same time, Cheadle (as director and co-writer) intercuts this burlesque core narrative with glimpses of Davis’ younger self: before the wild hair and contemptuous ’tude, back when a club gig meant showing up in a suit and tie. Back when Davis still was willing to face his audience, while performing, as opposed to always turning his back and playing solely for his fellow musicians.
The tone in these sequences is straight biography: Davis meets dancer Frances Taylor (the radiant Emayatzy Corinealdi); they fall in love; they get married. We get these seminal events in brief bursts — almost but not quite montages — that are, nonetheless, sufficient to depict the developing relationship. These are, by far, the film’s best and strongest moments; Cheadle and Corinealdi work well together, and we know that things are destined to get unpleasant.
Indeed, Frances’ subsequent decisions — the choices she makes, to appease Miles — are increasingly heartbreaking. Corinealdi makes us grieve for this poor woman who, ultimately, cannot do the impossible.
As for the rest ... well, it’s an experience. Stuhlbarg exudes quietly creepy menace as the sort of amoral shark who’d have been right at home alongside Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, back in 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success. Hamilton feels mobbed up, his threats issued with the calm possessed by the truly powerful.
Stanfield is appropriately twitchy as Hamilton’s (supposedly) talented but (meanwhile) junkie protégé: a kid who probably won’t live long enough to fulfill expectations.
McGregor ... is hard to fathom. Brill is a scruffy caricature of a journalist, much the way Stuhlbarg is a stereotyped wise guy. McGregor — much too old for the part, by the way — makes the guy somewhat sympathetic, at times, but the opportunistic Brill nonetheless remains difficult to like or admire. Or understand, for that matter.
The film score is amazing, of course: wonderful dollops of classic Davis — notably “So What” and “Solea” — blended with later charts and some vibrant jazz underscore work by Robert Glasper. (At times, when the story gets particularly outlandish, it might be more satisfying to shut your eyes and simply listen.)
Cheadle has delivered a wild ride: no doubt about that. While those who appreciate jazz in all its intricacies and complexities — particularly Miles Davis’ jazz — may delight in Cheadle’s audacious and, at times, quite clever “cinema riffs,” the whole doesn’t live up to the sum of its occasionally brilliant parts.
We’ve entered a phase of aggressively unusual and nonlinear movie storytelling, and the Oscar success of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is likely to make things, ah, challenging, for awhile. I applaud Cheadle’s inventive ambition, but while his film likely would have found favor with Davis himself, it’ll be a tough sell for everybody else.