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Saturday, April 23, 2016

"Miles Ahead" 2015. Jumbled and Alienating

"Miles Ahead" is chaotically put together, difficult to follow, and difficult to care about. Miles Davis (Don Cheadle), the main character, is depicted as a repugnant human being. The film plays shopworn musician biopic tricks in nasty ways to manipulate the audience. In interviews, Don Cheadle has said that he needed to get a big white star to appear in the film, and thus he built the film around the MacGuffin of Davis being interviewed by Ewan McGregor, allegedly the big white star. My guess is that Cheadle's funding didn't come through not because he is a black actor playing a black musician. My guess is that the funding was hard to find because the script was not a commercial script, no matter the color of the main character.

The film opens with a confusing mishmash of images. Miles Davis is being interviewed. We don't see the interviewer. There is film in the background of the Jack Johnson fight. This confused me. I know the fight took place over a hundred years ago and I did not know that anyone filmed it – meaning I was losing focus on the movie I was watching, and drawn into thinking about the movie in the movie. Not a good thing.

The scene is shot in extreme close-up. We see Don Cheadle's mouth and fingers as he smokes a cigarette; we also see an ashtray. This extreme close-up gives the film a claustrophobic feeling. As the film went on I began to wonder if the tight close-ups were used because there wasn't enough of a budget to create a set that reflected the time periods of the film: the 1970s and the 1950s.

The unseen interviewer asks Davis about jazz. Davis interrupts the interviewer and commands, "Don't call my music jazz." He insists that calling his music "jazz" stereotypes it. That's one of the dumbest and most petulant things I've ever heard a character say. Of course Miles Davis was a jazz musician. Ordering someone not to call jazz jazz is the demand of a petty dictator who wants control of language. The film was just beginning and I already hated the main character. And I was really sick of all that focus on his cigarette and his ashtray.

Ewan McGregor, the big white star meant to offer his magical powers to get purportedly rich whites to underwrite the movie and buy tickets to see it, shows up as Dave, a Rolling Stone reporter. He knocks on Miles Davis' door. Davis opens the door and immediately sucker punches Dave, a visitor he has never met. At this point, the film has offered me no reason to like Miles Davis, and lots of reasons to dislike him. There's more. He has a receding hairline and he wears his hair long – an older man's unsuccessful attempt to look young. And he dresses like a blind pimp. He's wearing a hip-length, turquoise and black jacket made of fabric best reserved for upholstery in houses of ill repute.

Davis has already proved he's cool by sucker punching a white man. He also proves he's cool in other cheap, manipulative ways. The film consists of a jumble of scenes shot in the 1970s and flashbacks to the 1950s. In the 1950s scene, Davis is in a car with a young white woman. The young white woman behaves foolishly. The young black woman in the front scene rolls her eyes at this white girl's buffoonery. So, Davis is cool because he can get a white girl.

The car pulls up to a house. A very beautiful young black woman is on the street. This is Frances Taylor, whom Davis will marry. He asks his white date for a twenty dollar bill. She gives him one. He writes his phone number on the bill and hands it to the black girl. Again, Davis is cool because he can mistreat white people, in this case a woman.

In more jumbled together, plot-less scenes, we see Frances dancing. She is exquisitely beautiful and the camera adores her. We see Frances and Davis making love. We don't see Miles Davis beating his wife. He did. He also made her quit her dancing career. What a guy.

More jumbled, plot-less scenes whose only point is to show what a boss Miles Davis really was, because he could mistreat white people. Miles Davis marches in to the offices of Columbia records. There is a man there who is obviously meant to be Jewish. He is smarmy and oily and condescending and power trips Davis. Davis pulls out a gun and shoots at him. He takes the man's money and uses that money, in a subsequent scene, to purchase cocaine, from yet another worshipful, star-struck white man he mistreats, while a white girl, partially undressed, sits on a bed. Davis, of course, must tell her to move over so he can sit next to her.

You get the idea.

What the movie does not show you is that Miles Davis grew up comfortable and privileged. Davis' father was a dentist who owned a couple of homes and a ranch. His mother was a musician. Davis received music lessons as a teenager, on daddy's dime. Davis was no gangster. He was a brat and a creep and an abuser of himself and others. I learned nothing about his appeal or his talent from this movie.

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Read about the 1970 film "My Sweet Charlie" starring Patty Duke and Al Freeman Jr in a previous blog post here: http://save-send-delete.blogspot.com/2016/04/my-sweet-charlie-1970-patty-duke-al.html

3 comments:

  1. Danusha:

    So glad McGregor and Cheadle didn't do blackface!

    I became a fan of Miles Davis's life and work after I read his autobiography.

    The black woman is the cool one.

    So it's all about Davis getting it one over the white race?

    [And I thought Jersey Boys was terrible in that regard].

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    1. Adelaide I'm amazed anyone could become a fan of Miles through his biography. That you did says you have a big heart.

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  2. ((((Danusha))))

    Thank you.

    Of course I came to the music first, with more information.

    That whole separating the work-artist thing - horns of a dilemma?

    I have a big heart for all sorts of jazz, blues, folk music. And music is generally the greatest opener of my heart.

    It was Chopin and Szymankowski, for instance, and Gorecki and Antoni Wit and Janina who opened me up to Polish music.

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