Miles Ahead

Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (1926-1991) is an American musical icon, whose influence on both jazz and popular music over a span of 40 years could quite legitimately be regarded as unparalleled in the annals of post-World War II Western music. His earlier work defined “cool” jazz and produced -- among many things -- the best-selling jazz album of all time, 1959’s Kind of Blue. Its infectious, timeless, relaxed swing makes it a top seller still to this day. Never content to stand still, Davis pushed the musical boundaries in the later 1960s with a freer, more modal approach to jazz with the group that has come to be known as his Second Great Quintet, with Herbie Hancock on piano, Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Ron Carter on bass and the beyond-incredible Tony Williams on drums. (Davis asked Williams to join the group when Tony was just 17 after hearing him play in Boston.)

As the 1960s flowed into the 1970s, Davis changed musical directions yet again and exercised perhaps his greatest influence ever over the direction of popular music. Always fascinated by the visceral rhythms of rock and the black-infused funk of musicians like James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and Jimi Hendrix, Davis incorporated electric instruments and rock-like rhythms into his improvisational music, creating a jazz-rock musical fusion, which later came to be known simply as “Fusion.” Dozens of popular groups and important musicians from the 70s onward credit Davis with having played a huge role in shaping their musical styles.

Davis himself was an incredibly complex and volatile personality, as personally explosive and unpredictable as he was artistically brilliant and innovative. Because of the enormity of the challenge involved in trying to capture both Davis’ personal and musical stories, there had never been a major movie about Davis before.

Veteran actor Don Cheadle, long a Miles devotee, took on the challenge, writing, directing, co-producing, and starring in the biopic Miles Ahead, released in April 2016. Cheadle’s portrayal of Miles is in same class as Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or George C. Scott’s Patton -- an all-time great on-screen depiction of an impossibly complicated individual, where the actor virtually becomes that character. Cheadle’s brilliant use of an intentionally fantastical plot line totally relieves the film of the burden of having to adhere to an arbitrary semblance of “historical accuracy,” instead freeing it to concentrate on the many wonderful on-screen moments of the portrayal of Miles’ persona. 

The viewer gets from this movie what they bring to it. The greater their understanding of Miles’ music and personality, the deeper will be their appreciation of the film’s subtleties.

Many people will simply enjoy the acting and the music and be amused by the eccentricities of the Miles character. However, the movie goes very deep and is very subtle -- Cheadle really knows his stuff. There is a scene where Miles' TV is on in the background, playing footage of the July 4th, 1910 boxing match between black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and Jim Jefferies. In 1908, Johnson had become boxing's first black heavyweight champion and white American culture was so outraged that they pressured the retired white champion Jim Jefferies to come out of retirement and "win back the heavyweight title for the white race," as the newspapers said at the time. Remember, from around 1900 to about the mid-1990s, boxing was a tremendously prestigious sport and boxing's heavyweight champion was regarded as the highest-achieving athlete in the world.

Johnson -- one of boxing's all-time greats -- toyed with Jefferies, humiliating him on his way to a 15th-round knockout victory. Miles loved Johnson, his in-your-face attitude towards white culture, his commitment to his craft, his utter disregard for what was considered 'normal' and 'acceptable.' Miles' great 1971 album Jack Johnson was dedicated to him. That the movie had this subtle Miles-boxing-Johnson reference is indicative of the level of care Cheadle paid to the small details.

Particularly affecting is the scene with the Gil Evans character (Evans was a highly-regarded big band arranger-composer in the 1950s-60s) as they finalize an arrangement for the Sketches of Spain album from 1960, an ambitious project featuring Miles’ trumpet leading a band playing Latin-flavored versions of classical works. This scene accurately displays Miles' incredible musicianship and understanding of composition, harmony and rhythm: the no-nonsense, have-to-know-it-cold talent and capability that differentiates the true greats from the merely very talented seat-of-the-pants players. Miles had "it," tons of it. This episode in the film is equally notable for revealing the serious, non-egotistical side of Miles’ personality and the amazing respect -- even reverence -- he had for Evans’ (who was Caucasian) musical authority and genius. Another “inside baseball” reference: The film’s title -- Miles Ahead -- is taken from Miles’ first album collaboration with Evans in 1957.

Later, there is a scene in Miles’ basement where he is playing with the Second Great Quintet. Miles says, "We'll do Wayne's [Shorter’s] tune, 'Nefertiti'." Viewers who know the album Nefertiti and the tune will really appreciate the scene. For viewers intimately familiar with the details, it's like they are waaaay inside this film, like it was written and performed just for them. The Herbie Hancock character in this scene is wearing somewhat nerdy-looking heavy black-framed glasses, just like Hancock was wearing on his cover shot on his album Takin' Off from the same mid-1960s time period. Again, it’s great subtle attention to detail by Cheadle. Who'd pick up on these things? Experienced Miles aficionados will and it was dozens of things like that throughout the film that makes it such an intense, personal experience for them. That scene is played against the juxtaposition of some serious tension between Miles and his wife Francis, so the scene exhibits tremendous friction and drama even without the viewer knowing the historical musical backdrop.

Finally, at the end of the movie, after an inordinate amount of delay and interruption for a myriad of reasons beyond the movie character Miles' control (that's the overriding made-up plot line: Miles' 1980 comeback is being held up due to contractual/copyright ownership issues), he plays his big comeback concert. As the electric Miles band plays -- and they are on fire! -- there are understated, just-happen-to be-in the-band cameos by the real Herbie Hancock (now 76) and Wayne Shorter (82) playing themselves in this final concert scene. For viewers intimately aware of the great musicians who’ve played with Miles through the years, seeing these jazz heavyweights -- all-time greats -- add their presence to the film in such a subtle and self-effacing manner speaks volumes to the high regard that Hancock and Shorter held for Cheadle’s film tribute. It’s the final, definitive example of Cheadle’s remarkable ability to successfully craft a film about an amazingly conflicted, multifaceted character, a film that works on several levels at once.

Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (1926-1991) is an American musical icon, whose influence on both jazz and popular music over a span of 40 years could quite legitimately be regarded as unparalleled in the annals of post-World War II Western music. His earlier work defined “cool” jazz and produced -- among many things -- the best-selling jazz album of all time, 1959’s Kind of Blue. Its infectious, timeless, relaxed swing makes it a top seller still to this day. Never content to stand still, Davis pushed the musical boundaries in the later 1960s with a freer, more modal approach to jazz with the group that has come to be known as his Second Great Quintet, with Herbie Hancock on piano, Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Ron Carter on bass and the beyond-incredible Tony Williams on drums. (Davis asked Williams to join the group when Tony was just 17 after hearing him play in Boston.)

As the 1960s flowed into the 1970s, Davis changed musical directions yet again and exercised perhaps his greatest influence ever over the direction of popular music. Always fascinated by the visceral rhythms of rock and the black-infused funk of musicians like James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and Jimi Hendrix, Davis incorporated electric instruments and rock-like rhythms into his improvisational music, creating a jazz-rock musical fusion, which later came to be known simply as “Fusion.” Dozens of popular groups and important musicians from the 70s onward credit Davis with having played a huge role in shaping their musical styles.

Davis himself was an incredibly complex and volatile personality, as personally explosive and unpredictable as he was artistically brilliant and innovative. Because of the enormity of the challenge involved in trying to capture both Davis’ personal and musical stories, there had never been a major movie about Davis before.

Veteran actor Don Cheadle, long a Miles devotee, took on the challenge, writing, directing, co-producing, and starring in the biopic Miles Ahead, released in April 2016. Cheadle’s portrayal of Miles is in same class as Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or George C. Scott’s Patton -- an all-time great on-screen depiction of an impossibly complicated individual, where the actor virtually becomes that character. Cheadle’s brilliant use of an intentionally fantastical plot line totally relieves the film of the burden of having to adhere to an arbitrary semblance of “historical accuracy,” instead freeing it to concentrate on the many wonderful on-screen moments of the portrayal of Miles’ persona. 

The viewer gets from this movie what they bring to it. The greater their understanding of Miles’ music and personality, the deeper will be their appreciation of the film’s subtleties.

Many people will simply enjoy the acting and the music and be amused by the eccentricities of the Miles character. However, the movie goes very deep and is very subtle -- Cheadle really knows his stuff. There is a scene where Miles' TV is on in the background, playing footage of the July 4th, 1910 boxing match between black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and Jim Jefferies. In 1908, Johnson had become boxing's first black heavyweight champion and white American culture was so outraged that they pressured the retired white champion Jim Jefferies to come out of retirement and "win back the heavyweight title for the white race," as the newspapers said at the time. Remember, from around 1900 to about the mid-1990s, boxing was a tremendously prestigious sport and boxing's heavyweight champion was regarded as the highest-achieving athlete in the world.

Johnson -- one of boxing's all-time greats -- toyed with Jefferies, humiliating him on his way to a 15th-round knockout victory. Miles loved Johnson, his in-your-face attitude towards white culture, his commitment to his craft, his utter disregard for what was considered 'normal' and 'acceptable.' Miles' great 1971 album Jack Johnson was dedicated to him. That the movie had this subtle Miles-boxing-Johnson reference is indicative of the level of care Cheadle paid to the small details.

Particularly affecting is the scene with the Gil Evans character (Evans was a highly-regarded big band arranger-composer in the 1950s-60s) as they finalize an arrangement for the Sketches of Spain album from 1960, an ambitious project featuring Miles’ trumpet leading a band playing Latin-flavored versions of classical works. This scene accurately displays Miles' incredible musicianship and understanding of composition, harmony and rhythm: the no-nonsense, have-to-know-it-cold talent and capability that differentiates the true greats from the merely very talented seat-of-the-pants players. Miles had "it," tons of it. This episode in the film is equally notable for revealing the serious, non-egotistical side of Miles’ personality and the amazing respect -- even reverence -- he had for Evans’ (who was Caucasian) musical authority and genius. Another “inside baseball” reference: The film’s title -- Miles Ahead -- is taken from Miles’ first album collaboration with Evans in 1957.

Later, there is a scene in Miles’ basement where he is playing with the Second Great Quintet. Miles says, "We'll do Wayne's [Shorter’s] tune, 'Nefertiti'." Viewers who know the album Nefertiti and the tune will really appreciate the scene. For viewers intimately familiar with the details, it's like they are waaaay inside this film, like it was written and performed just for them. The Herbie Hancock character in this scene is wearing somewhat nerdy-looking heavy black-framed glasses, just like Hancock was wearing on his cover shot on his album Takin' Off from the same mid-1960s time period. Again, it’s great subtle attention to detail by Cheadle. Who'd pick up on these things? Experienced Miles aficionados will and it was dozens of things like that throughout the film that makes it such an intense, personal experience for them. That scene is played against the juxtaposition of some serious tension between Miles and his wife Francis, so the scene exhibits tremendous friction and drama even without the viewer knowing the historical musical backdrop.

Finally, at the end of the movie, after an inordinate amount of delay and interruption for a myriad of reasons beyond the movie character Miles' control (that's the overriding made-up plot line: Miles' 1980 comeback is being held up due to contractual/copyright ownership issues), he plays his big comeback concert. As the electric Miles band plays -- and they are on fire! -- there are understated, just-happen-to be-in the-band cameos by the real Herbie Hancock (now 76) and Wayne Shorter (82) playing themselves in this final concert scene. For viewers intimately aware of the great musicians who’ve played with Miles through the years, seeing these jazz heavyweights -- all-time greats -- add their presence to the film in such a subtle and self-effacing manner speaks volumes to the high regard that Hancock and Shorter held for Cheadle’s film tribute. It’s the final, definitive example of Cheadle’s remarkable ability to successfully craft a film about an amazingly conflicted, multifaceted character, a film that works on several levels at once.