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There’s a moment, about 90 seconds into the Don Cheadle-starring Miles Ahead, where it feels like the film is going to slip into hagiography, that we’re about to get the central tale of pain that led Miles Davis to being the most transcendent jazz musician—and maybe musician in general—of the 20th century. “If you’re going to tell a story,” Davis tells an off-camera music journo played by Ewan McGregor, “Come with some attitude, man.” Davis’ face fades, and a trumpet plays. Then we see Davis and McGregor fleeing gunshots, and the rest of the film unfolds as a coke-and-remembrance filled caper, wherein Davis enlists McGregor to help him take back an unreleased tape of jams that has been stolen by an executive at Davis’ label, Columbia. If you don’t know the outline of Davis’ career before Miles Ahead, or if you’re hoping to see why you should listen to him in 2016, or why he’s still important, you will be disappointed. If you want to see a movie that theorizes and fabricates what Davis was up to between 1976 and 1981--when he didn’t record any albums and was mostly laid up with a hip condition and a cocaine addiction-- and isn’t interested in “selling” the artist to you in the least, Miles Ahead is what you’re looking for. Which is to say that Miles Ahead willfully shreds the idea of a biopic from the inside; a deconstruction of what we want from the form. It’s the best movie about a real musician I’ve ever seen.
I’m not sure what the first musician biopic actually was, and I’m not sure it actually pays to look it up, because no matter the musician, we could all write it. Artist faces childhood trauma, fights for attention, gets said attention, struggles for a while, gets famous, and then depending on the artist, they get hooked on drugs, die in a plane crash, or go blind. They’re as formulaic as a romantic comedy and they’re as saccharine to boot.
The moment Jamie Foxx walked off the Oscar stage in 2005, holding the award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray, you knew that an idea-strapped Hollywood was going to be greenlighting dozens of musician biopics, and they haven’t disappointed. There was a Jimi Hendrix biopic without any Hendrix music, an N.W.A. biopic without any attitude, a dreadful Biggie biopic, an equally dreadful Chess Records movie; Johnny Cash got one, Brian Wilson got one, James Brown got one, and just this month, two jazz singers got their own (Nina Simone and Chet Baker). The best traditional biopic of that cohort, by a mile, was the Ian Curtis biopic, Control, and most of that was because it was all about unredemptive suffering, in the midst of Joy Division’s creative outburst. We watch Ian struggle with epilepsy, struggle in his marriage, struggle to make music, struggle with his mistress, and struggle with fear of touring America, and then he kills himself. There’s no redemptive arc at all in that one, no moment of light.
Miles Ahead, conversely, lacks any redemption, and lacks any biographical info at all, really. Miles flashes back to his marriage—and the events that led to its implosion—and he sometimes is visited by images of his band when he’s in the most high-tension spots of his tape caper. The portrait of Miles painted here by Cheadle—who directed and co-wrote the movie—is that of a guy past his prime, spending his time being bad and listening to tapes filled with organ sketches that no one would confuse for Kind of Blue. No one really knows if Miles was actually like this at the time—he actually lost his embouchure because he spent such little time playing trumpet—which opens up Cheadle to play Miles as a manic lunatic. Imagine the alternative: Cheadle standing on a stage pantomiming playing trumpet, and then going to the studio to yell about making Milestones or whatever. It’s such a brilliant move—to ignore the legend, and make what amounts to action movie fan fic-- I can’t believe someone hasn’t made a biopic of like, the Rolling Stones, that just covers them getting high and getting into trouble in 1971.
Miles Ahead won’t make you come to new appreciation of the trials of recording On the Corner (though the flashback portions showing the recording of Sketches of Spain were sick), and it’s not going to fill in Miles’ story better than a read through his Wikipedia. But it made me want to listen to everything the guy has ever done, and made him seem like a real, live, magnetic person, who had real, crazy faults, even if he was a creative genius. That’s more than you can say about any biopic before this one.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.