Must the virtuoso but virtuous?
In The Republic Plato answered the question with an emphatic, uptight: yes. Most moderns by contrast are blithely willing to separate, as necessary, the musician from the music he makes. (I dispense with the “he or she” because it’s almost always he when we’re talking about rogues and bastards in the music biz.) Given the combined excesses of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, few now bother to claim that only good people can make good music. One is more likely to argue the opposite: in music, it could be that the bad are more often better at being beautiful than are the good.
The conundrum rears its Hydra-head throughout Don Cheadle’s cinematic directorial debut about the famed trumpeter and infamous wife-beater, Miles Davis, in which the always-compelling Cheadle also takes the lead role. His Miles Ahead is a well-crafted, entertaining, fast-paced, sometimes surreal period biopic that, thanks to an ingenious form, carefully-wrought script (also co-written by Cheadle) and lush and grainy visual style economically and adroitly addresses ever major theme in Davis’s artistic and personal life: jazz; clothes; women; cars; customized trumpets; drugs (heroin, cocaine, alcohol, and even more ungodly amounts of tobacco); celebrity; seclusion; boxing; domestic abuse; racism; physical infirmity; guns; and money.
The movie achieves this comprehensive feat of biography — rare in films about real musicians — by untethering itself from dramatically deadening facts and inventing a day and night in 1979 at a crucial juncture (or perhaps, better, at the nadir) of Davis’s career near the close of five years of self-imposed retirement from recording and performing. If Cheadle does not adhere to the moral valuation placed on music by Plato, he wisely resuscitates the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action, though these are interleaved with reveries and hallucinations about earlier moments in Davis’s musical and romantic lives. These asynchronous insertions are centered around his first wife, Frances Taylor, the beautiful woman whose image stares from the cover of Davis’s 1961 album, Someday My Prince Will Come.
That album serves as a visual and aural leitmotif throughout the film, first after Miles retreats from the upper floors of the CBS building where he has just fired a warning shot from his revolver at a Columbia Records executive and robbed a sniveling corporate lawyer of $500. Hobbled by his chronically bad hip, Miles stumbles face to face with the LP cover ornamenting the wall of the elevator he rides down. “Frances, Frances …” he yearns in that gravelly whisper that was as much his sonic trademark as the breathy eloquence of his Harmon-muted trumpet.
The camera then follows the trail of Miles’s memory as we escape with him back to a humid night in the suburbs two decades earlier. From the backseat of a convertible Cadillac where he’s been enjoying the comforts of a white woman, he spies the gorgeous dancer, Taylor, across the street. He gets out of the car and goes to her. The larger frame of the Aristotelian unities allows Cheadle to treat time as elastic, elusive: from this love-at-first-sight moment the pair is soon in bed, his black skin (Davis’s nickname was Inky) against hers of light brown.
When the elevator spits Miles out at street level and into the filmic present, he is spirited away from the evil corporation by a likably sleazy journalist (Ewan McGregor). This snoop is trying to get the scoop on a possible Miles comeback. Like all of the best and unlikeliest onscreen bromances, going back to Errol Flynn and Alan Hale in The Adventures of Robin Hood, this one begins with a duel, Miles punching the reporter after he tries to force his way into the trumpeter’s house in a converted church on the Upper West Side.
Soon, however, Miles and the intruder are fast, though not unfailing friends. The journalist pilots Miles’ green jaguar from one Columbia to another (the record company to the university) so as to score some coke. The drug-dealing student is surprised by Miles and his new chauffeur in the midst of a midmorning lovemaking session with a dreamy coed—mute, lovely, and to be presumed naked beneath the sheets.
The dealer wants $800 for the bag, that’s $300 more than what Miles has just extorted from the lawyer at the other Columbia. Not only Miles voice and trumpet tone, but also his face are immediately recognizable. The awestruck student pulls several classic Davis LPs from his bookshelf: it’s all the old stuff that Miles wants to leave behind in his perpetual search for the new.
In an attempt to seal the drug deal in spite of the lack of necessary cash, McGregor’s journalist demands to know how often the student has gotten laid to the sounds of these very Davis recordings: not having paid royalties to the artist is a form of exploitation even more so now that he’s in the room and wants drugs.
At the reporter’s urging, Miles makes up the shortfall by signing some of the covers; he’s so eager for drugs that he violates his own prohibition against debasing himself through autographs. But Miles won’t sign Someday My Prince Will Come. Instead he confiscates it with a lapidary “this belongs to me.” The line refers not only to the music but also to the woman on the cover, both now long gone from his grasp.
Through the rest of the manic Manhattan day and night their are excursions into the classic past of Kind of Blue and its milieu and into his turbulent relationship with Taylor: their swinging 70s parties erupt in his own house, apparently without his permission; squealing tires and more gunshots in New York City’s boulevards and back alleys accompany the frantic search for a stolen reel-to-reel tape whose existence reveals a reawakening desire on the trumpeter’s part to share his latest ground-breaking music with an increasingly impatient public; boxing matches are staged at yet another converted church; there is manly bonding over the heavy bag and a bottle of whisky.
In the decisive flashback, a coke-infused Davis hits Taylor (played with a fierce, yet yielding poise by Emayatzy Corinealdi) after having come upstairs from his private basement studio where he’s rehearsing with his great 1960s quintet of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Rather than running to her defense, the musicians remain at their instruments, lamely asking after the bandleader’s return, “Everything alright, Miles?”
Though not forgiven by the filmmaker, the violence’s cause is shifted onto the cocaine: domestic abuse becomes a form of drug abuse. A quarter century later, Taylor told the New York Times that she ran from the ten-year-marriage in fear for her life.
Chemical addiction certainly played its part in Davis’s brutalization of so many of his women, yet it cannot explain the attitude he expressed, presumably in a less addled state, in his 1989 autobiography where he describes how he beat his third wife Cicely Tyson at their house in Malibu. Cowering in the basement, she called the police, but after Miles’ had a macho chat with the officers, “they just laughed and left,” he claimed in the memoir made up of interviews edited by Quincy Troupe. “Then I went down [to the basement] and before I knew it I had slapped her again. So she never did pull that kind of shit on me again.”
Pearl Cleage’s clarion 1990 essay, “Mad at Miles” drew much needed attention to this alarming passage in the autobiography, and confronted a profoundly unsettling truth also dealt with, if obliquely, in the Columbia student’s room and the scenes of domestic violence in Miles Ahead: that behind the music’s cool façade promising eros and seduction their lurks a raging misogynistic beast.
In the summer of 1983 I sat near Tyson at Miles’s concert at the Kool Jazz Festival in Seattle. Up on stage in the Seattle Center Arena, Miles wore his bright yellow jumpsuit with matching cap. He said nothing during the show but did stick out his tongue quite a bit: it looked like bright pink bubble gum against his dark skin. Lurching around the stage, mostly with his back to the audience, he poked out a few notes at the keyboard and occasionally raised his trumpet to his lips, its noble tone piercing the electronic haze emitted by his band. Throughout the performance Tyson writhed in what appeared to be pure ecstasy, often laying flat in her seat as her fingers clawed at her knees and thighs, the music working an otherworldly magic on her.
I thought of this real life scene after leaving Miles Ahead and its entertaining, provocative fictions. In the movie the renewing power of music and the trumpeter’s ultimate comeback outshine the baseness of his behavior.
In the film’s credits Cheadle, dressed as late-model Miles is reunited with Hancock and Shorter in a celestial concert that resurrects him so that his apostles can provide a benediction and impart the message that his music is immortal.
As in Miles’s career, it’s all guys on stage, with the exception of the vibrantly joyous Esperanza Spalding at her electric bass. In the end art triumphs over life.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com.)