Sketches of Pain

Why can’t movies about jazz greats get what makes jazz great?

Still of Don Cheadle in Miles Ahead.
It’s a mystery why Miles Ahead is a puerile piece of trash that tells little about Miles Davis and nothing about the vitality of his music. Above, Don Cheadle plays the iconic musician.

Sony Pictures Classics

For all the movie soundtracks that jazz has enlivened over the decades, there are almost no good movies about jazz. Maybe the only near-great one is Chico & Rita, an Oscar-nominated animated film with a sizzling score about a Cuban pianist’s long affair with a singer, etched against the streets and nightclubs of Havana and New York City, from the late 1940s to early ’60s. The vibe, culture, and characters (some of them real musicians) are marvelously rendered: at once harsh, warm, deeply romantic, yet unsentimental. Another good jazz film is Round Midnight, which (before it turns mawkish toward the end) captures the indigo loneliness of the jazz exile and the obsession of the jazz fan—and also features a moving performance by tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who was sick at the time and acted better than he played.

And that’s about it. Most of the others have been cookie-cutter “cradle-to-grave” bios (The Glenn Miller Story, The Bennie Goodman Story), or sloppy caricatures of self-loathing drug addicts (Bird, Lady Sings the Blues), or half-baked celebrations of the artist as manic sadomasochist (Whiplash). Two new films about famous horn players fail to rise above these norms; one achieves the remarkable feat of churning out a whole new set of clichés and setting a new level of degradation. That’s Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s biopic about Miles Davis.

Miles Ahead is clearly a labor of love: Cheadle, its star–co-writer–director, spent a decade coaxing it into being, even tapping a crowdfunding site for early financing; Vince Wilburn Jr., Davis’ nephew and the keeper of his estate, served as producer. Davis’ children signed on as executive producers. So it’s a mystery why they chose to make such a puerile piece of trash—an adolescent’s fantasy, full of car chases and gunfights—that tells little about Miles Davis and nothing about the vitality of his music. Newcomers to jazz will walk away muttering the title of the first track from his landmark album Kind of Blue (without knowing that’s what they’re doing): “So what.”

Cheadle has justified his bizarre choices by saying that his aim was to make a movie that Miles would have liked to star in—which meant portraying “this dude as a gangster.” Davis did cultivate this image: the diffident cool, dark shades, outlaw glances, fast sports cars, and cocky threads. In the ’80s, he played a drug-dealing pimp on an episode of Miami Vice, then the hottest show on television, and clearly relished the role. But that doesn’t mean a film about his life should be gussied up as a Miami Vice extension reel with Miles cast as a fevered fantasy of Tubbs, Crockett, the pimp, and a junkie combined.

The movie begins with Miles in the late 1970s, the years when he holed up in his Upper West Side brownstone, stewing in coked paranoia, his trumpet untouched. That much is true. The rest is fiction: a visit by a Rolling Stone reporter, their adventurous hunt for a tape reel stolen by corporate sleazebags (which brings on the car chases and shoot-’em-ups, including one scene where Miles fires a pistol in the office of Columbia Records’ president), and … it pains me to go further.

Interwoven with this action comic book are flashbacks from Miles in the 1950s and early ’60s. These sequences hint at what Miles Ahead might have been: hazy but sharp, like darts of memory, and, in substance and tone, fairly true to the man and the music he made. The most gripping scene—a cop smacking Miles on the head with a billy club, then dragging him to jail—is a spot-on re-creation of a real-life incident in 1959 outside the posh Midtown jazz club Birdland. Cheadle has done his homework, read all the books and memoirs, studied the music, scrutinized the videos. He captures Miles to a T—both the cool cat of the ’50s and the zoned-out recluse of the ’70s: the raspy voice, the insouciant disdain, the seething anger just beneath the frosty surface.

These scenes also present a complex portrait of Miles’ first wife, Frances Taylor (compellingly played by Emayatzy Corinealdi), the feisty, gorgeous dancer and rising Broadway star who abandoned her career at his insistence, then left him after a decade of cruel fits and infidelities. In interviews, Cheadle has noted Taylor’s role as a muse and cultural influence for some of Davis’ boldest innovations—but he dramatizes none of this in his movie. To the extent she comes off more poignantly than the standard-issue artist’s abused spouse, these scenes only deepen the mystery of why viewers should care about this jerk that the movie calls Miles Davis.

Music lies at the heart of the real man’s appeal and importance, and it’s with the music that the movie fails most grievously. Cheadle has said he didn’t want to make a movie for the 3 percent of the audience who know everything about Miles Davis—and he has a point. But there’s not much here to satisfy the 97 percent who might want a reason to know anything about Miles Davis. We hear bits of his music on the soundtrack (thanks to the estate for delivering the rights) but only sporadically and out of context.

“I changed the music five or six times,” Miles once wrote with characteristic immodesty, and he was right: from sideman in Charlie Parker’s bebop revolution, to pioneer of Third Stream chamber jazz with Birth of the Cool, to jump-starter of blues-inflected hard bop with his mid-’50s quintet, to the jazz orchestra collaborations with Gil Evans, to the modal rumblings of Milestones and Kind of Blue, to the jangled free-form intensity of his mid-’60s quintet, to the invention of rock-jazz fusion in the ’70s with Bitches Brew and Dark Magus. He commandeered these shifts before the era of retreat depicted in this movie, and we get none of it: no sense of his ceaseless innovation, his restless drive to be original over and over and over.

Nor do we get a taste of what remained consistent, front and center throughout these changes—his sound: the plangent tone, the tempered expressiveness, the simmering romance, and the darting melodic twists, like the lines of a Miro painting. We don’t even get a full sense of the public aura that the real Miles radiated. He was the first jazz musician since the original pioneer, Louis Armstrong, to construct a persona to match his music—but where Satchmo took the form of a boisterous showman in the days of segregation, Miles carved his as a brooding sorcerer on the cusp of black assertiveness. He was a historic figure in every way. Cheadle’s notion of character—“this dude as a gangster”—is lame oversimplification.

Born to Be Blue, a less ballyhooed film starring Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker, isn’t as awful as Miles Ahead, but it’s not as interesting either—mainly because Baker’s story is kind of boring. A star on the Los Angeles jazz scene (which was a world away from New York in the ’50s), Baker was very pretty, played very pretty, sometimes sang pretty, too. (“My Funny Valentine” was his big slow hit.) He was wildly popular, even beating Miles and Dizzy Gillespie in a few jazz polls (to every East Coaster’s puzzlement, since he sounded like warmed-over Miles). Then he got hooked on heroin and, unlike most other jazz junkies of the era, he never kicked the habit. He fell apart, turned ugly, got his teeth knocked out by gangsters who’d lent him money, and struggled back to a decent fraction of his old form before moving to Europe, where he kept playing and shooting up until he died in 1988. (Davis died of various ailments three years later.)

Still of Ethan Hawke in Born to Be Blue.
Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue isn’t as awful as  Miles Ahead, but it’s not as interesting either—mainly because Baker’s story is kind of boring.

New Real Films

Hawke nails Baker as tightly as Cheadle nails Davis, but Baker was an empty soul—jazz, smack, and little more. (In the movie, there isn’t even his music: The rights weren’t obtained, so we hear a stand-in trumpeter playing a passable imitation of Baker.)

Baker’s image was spun by two great photographers: William Claxton romanticized the jazz beachcomber’s life in his early days; Bruce Weber prettified the junkie decay of his later years. To his credit, Cheadle avoids these strains in his Miles movie; unfortunately, Robert Budreau, the Baker film’s writer-director, dives full-bore into the foolish myth that heroin made great jazzmen great.

The myth took hold with the rise of Charlie Parker, the greatest jazz musician ever and one of the most capacious heroin addicts. Parker died in 1955 at the age of 34, looking so wrecked that the coroner guessed his age as 56, but that didn’t stop a generation of jazz musicians from shooting up in the belief that it would make them sound more like Parker. In fact, we now know—thanks to bootleg tapes discovered in the late ’80s—that Parker sounded his best during a gig at the Three Deuces jazz club during a brief spell, in 1947, when he was clean.

What both of these films miss almost entirely is the spirit and spark that the best jazz arouses—what critic Whitney Balliett called “the sound of surprise.” This isn’t a failing of jazz films alone; there aren’t many good movies about painters, sculptors, or dancers either. Art is hard to dramatize, but artists are rarely so fascinating that their personal lives—apart from their art—make for good drama. That may be why Cheadle just made up a lot of stuff (but what silly stuff!) and why Budreau’s work is so hollow.

The best portraits of jazz, the films that truly probe its sound and soul, are documentaries: Straight No Chaser (about Thelonious Monk); Keep on Keepin’ On (Clark Terry and his mentorship of blind pianist Justin Kauflin), A Great Day in Harlem (a photo-shoot reunion of jazz legends), Buena Vista Social Club (then-unknown stars of Havana on a tour in New York City), and The Jazz Loft of W. Eugene Smith (a brilliant portrait of an improvised jazz collective, currently showing at festivals, with, I hope, general release later this year). Meanwhile, stay home, put on some records, and listen to the music.