Miles Ahead and Tears… Behind

david-bowie-0      2016 has been a difficult year for musical men.  On January 10th, David Bowie passed, and then on April 21st, so did Prince.  A number of other notable figures followed, but in those two men I lost my masculine ideals.  David Bowie, who appeared in a dress on the cover of his 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World, pushed notions of masculinity along sex and gender lines.  In addition, Bowie challenged listeners, fans, and the world to think more deeply about music, genre, and what being a musician meant.  He rejected the idea of a rock star in the 1970s and worked on film and in the theater.  Prince, meanwhile, would appear in thigh highs, panties, a bandana, and a rain coat on the cover to his 1980 release, Dirty Mind, and like Bowie, chartered new space for masculinity and African-American masculinity specifically.  Prince also worked continuously at changing what he did, producing all sorts of records covering a wide spectrum of sounds.  At the same time, Bowie and Prince were transformative figures who moved so powerfully alone, even as they worked collaboratively.  Each assembled and led groups of musicians and others, all the while reveling in the sheer power and audacity of their creations. Through art, these men reached millions and yet changed constantly.  And while we all lost them, the music— and so much more—remains.

Bowie was 69 years old, had cancer, but kept that hidden as he released his last album days before his death, which came to most of us as a surprise.  Prince’s death, on the other hand, at 57 with no known illnesses, was even more shocking.  Drugs were involved, but the addiction was hidden. Both men, regardless of their age, were public icons of fashion, beauty, and sexuality, yet deeply mysterious.


Prince performs live at the Fabulous Forum on February 19, 1985 in Inglewood, California. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Prince performs live at the Fabulous Forum on February 19, 1985 in Inglewood, California. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

I saw Purple Rain (1984) in the theater again recently, as did so many in the week or two after Prince’s death.  I then saw Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead (2015) a few days later.  Miles Davis passed away in September of 1991.  Were he still with us, Miles Davis would have been 90 last month.[1]  Don Cheadle has directed several “House of Lies” episodes, but Miles Ahead is his full-length directorial debut.  A sax player and jazz fan who gave himself a crash course in the trumpet for this film, Cheadle brings to the picture a vested interest in the music.  Indeed, the music is layered throughout the film in a way that renders the film nearly secondary to the score.  Miles Ahead is not a musical, nor is it an extended-play music video.  Beyoncé is a contemporary artist who has been working skillfully across film and music, as demonstrated most recently in her astounding Lemonade.  Both Prince and Beyoncé, however, are themselves the artists they represent, unlike most of the pop singers rotating through the hit factory.[2]   These pop stars (Rianna, Demi Lavato, and you name the rest[3]) sing the songs that have been crafted for them without contributing significantly to the making of the music, but standing in for the product as a whole.  The idea of the artist as a single self, especially with relation to the aforementioned, is, I know, troubling.  The very thing that made (and makes) artists like Prince and Bowie so good is their ability to transcend and be more than one.  Their lack of fixity allows them to make new music and art that moves audiences, over and over.  There are distinct periods in their careers, certainly, but there are many of them. With his moves from traditional jazz to cool to fusion and electric, Miles Davis was doing this, too.


            Miles Ahead is thus a musical biography that attempts to engage the music, and the making of music, with a stand-in: Don Cheadle.  The plot of the film reveals the very different take that Cheadle offers.  Rather than tell the life story, Cheadle offers a span of a few days and a heist narrative.  Cheadle’s Miles opens the film in medias res, spilling out of a car and car chase, having stolen a reel of his own music back from a sleazy wannabe producer.  Cheadle then time travels to show how he arrived at stealing his own music from the very cats who were supposed to be nurturing him and releasing his music.[4]  From the outset, time in the narrative is discontinuous and intermittent.  With the advent of the web, the music industry’s parasitic relationship to its artists has been unearthed, and both have struggled to recover.  Prince fought the industry as well as Bowie, and before them so did Miles Davis.  Like Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, now Prince, and so many others, Miles Davis lost the battle with drugs.  Cheadle collapses roughly twenty years (from the mid-1940s to the 1970s) into a few days, but the narrative engine is Miles’s relationship to music.  The ten year marriage to Francis Taylor, Davis’s first wife, figures prominently as a necessary component to the artist’s musical nourishment.  The 1959 beating at the hands of two New York City Police Department Officers is also featured.  The film moves through fighting and boxing—the punching bag in the apartment to the Jack Johnson fight that slips into a smoky shoot-out and Davis performance—as well as the flimsy and fictionalized notion of Davis and a Rolling Stone reporter, Dave Brill (played by Ewan McGregor), chasing down that reel amidst drug runs and parties.

Cheadle as director plays well with both the music as a constant character and the dialogue as a companion to those same tunes.  “So What,” from Davis’s Kind of Blue (1959), echoes repeatedly in a comedic sketch involving Cheadle’s Miles and Dave Brill buying drugs from a college kid while his naked girlfriend lounges in bed.  Dave manipulates the kid for more drugs by offering a few Miles Davis autographs and the fact that Davis is how the kid scores with the girl  Reducing Kind of Blue to a shagging record is diminutive, as is the entire heist/gangster ploy.  Yet this moment and the plot as a whole are really minor players in the film.  The music is what matters, and Cheadle’s film is deeply wrapped up in the music of Miles Davis.

The end of the film features present day jazz musicians Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding, Wayne Shorter, Gary Clark, Jr., and Robert Glasper jamming with Don Cheadle playing as Miles.[5]  The music in the film collapses Davis’s career across several days, through “real” life and fictive events, interspersed with musical montage and fantasy.  That is to say, the appearance of the real Herbie Hancock—and not the actor playing him in earlier scenes—along with the very real Shorter, Spalding, Clark, Jr., and Glasper, posits the idea of Miles Davis in the present.  It’s almost as if Miles were still with us.  The music of the man is, in fact, still with us.  The fight that eventually gets us to the ending is a terrific example of such blending.  It’s a boxing match, and with it comes anxiety, excitement, beauty, danger, and violence, all things wrapped up in the process of making music (for Miles Davis)  and in the listening to it (for the audience).  Viewers of narrative may well question such multiplicity, but as the closing song title suggests, and perhaps as Davis himself challenged us across his career, “What’s Wrong with That?”

by Brooke A. Carlson

[1] The life of Sonny Rollins, in his 85th year today, suggests what might have happened had Miles Davis taken a different path.

[2] That episode with Kanye West, Beyoncé, and Beck at last year’s Grammys illustrates the problem of artistry and representation, and you can see it all here

[3] I have named female singers, but there are males, too.  The Backstreet Boys, for example, were a huge part of the hit factory story.

[4] Tate Taylor uses a similar narrative machine to tell James Brown’s story in his 2014 bio pic, Get on Up.

[5] Robert Glasper’s soundtrack to the film Miles Ahead features eleven Miles Davis tracks, a smattering of dialogue from the film, and five Glasper tracks composed for the film.  Glasper followed the soundtrack with the Miles Davis inspired Everything’s Beautiful, reviewed by Seth Colter Walls in Pitchfork.  KT Hawbaker-Krohn offers a slick review with the Davis tracks embedded at Bustle.


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