There’s an absolute zinger of a joke currently circulating around the London jazz scene. Miles Davis is being celebrated with a new biopic! And anything that spreads the message about jazz is undoubtedly a good thing. But – and now the punch-line – what a pity the film bogs itself down; all that sober analysis of Miles’s evolving concepts of harmony and musical structure diminishes what could otherwise have been a sure-fire commercial hit.
In reality, Miles Ahead, directed by and starring Don Cheadle, is centred around a period in Miles Davis’s life between 1975 and 1979 when he was making precisely no music at all and instead spending his time binging on drugs, drink and recreational sex. Ewan McGregor’s character, a fictionalised Lester Bangs-meets-Robert Palmer composite, is a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine who turns up at Davis’s Upper West Side townhouse to find out how retirement is treating this revered musician who hasn’t released an album since 1976, when the open-ended improvisation and ferocious funk grooves of his Pangaea tanked in record stores the world over.
What had happened exactly to this once unimpeachable architect of supreme jazz masterworks like Kind of Blue, Porgy and Bess and Bitches Brew, apparently constructed without breaking sweat? But Davis takes an instant dislike to this impertinent pen pusher and whacks him full in the mouth – the message subliminally implanted from the get-go that you fuck with Miles at your peril.
Time was when jazz on film meant the sherbety sentimentality of The Glenn Miller Story or the wisecracking bravado of the equivalent Benny Goodman biopic. But Miles Ahead – following in the weighty tradition of Bernard Tavernier’s truly great Round Midnight and Clint Eastwood’s flawed but worthy Bird – is a project of a different magnitude. Cheadle speaks of a film that Davis himself might have wanted to make: an impulsive improvisational riff on his music and the wretchedness of being a free-spirited creative artist in a society warped by racism.
Which raises definite problems. Black music in mid-century America was riddled with metaphorical personas. Bandleader Sun Ra, born Herman Blount, knitted together a lavish metaphor to explain why his music slammed formalised swing-era arrangements into impulsive free jazz – his music had travelled from Saturn, he claimed, where all musics were equal – and what were personas like Duke (Ellington), Count (Basie), Lady Day (Billie Holiday) or Prez (Lester Young) other than assertions of status within a segregated society. Davis’s adopted persona of the Prince of Darkness – and of the baddest of all bad badasses ever – was his retort to those same pressures, and erected a barrier against becoming sucked inside mainstream caricatures of jazz and of the black experience in general.
You can’t blame Cheadle for wanting to inject his film with a narrative shot in the arm – discussions of chord symbols and theories of improvisation are hardly the stuff of celluloid dreams. But clearly flirting with the mainstream has limits. Interviewed on the One Show, BBC’s giggly primetime potpourri of celebrity-who-cares stories, lifestyle fluff and ‘and-finally’ news items, Cheadle’s thoughts about Miles’s knack of ‘playing the space between the notes’ and his film aspiring to ‘externalise (Miles’s) internal journey’ were met with tongue-tied awkwardness by two identikit presenters, one of whom nervously trilled something dippy about Davis’s music being ‘beautiful, lovely and chilled out’ – precisely the level where mainstream media, apparently unable to grasp that musicians might actually be trying to wake people up, not chill them out, too often drags music.
Miles Ahead arrives with the inevitable squall of cash-in albums as Sony, who now own the Davis back-catalogue, flexes its commercial muscle. Given that he was a restless experimenter whose albums messed with expectations of form and genre, and eventually of the album itself by exploiting editing itself as a compositional tool, the big Miles paradox is that he is one of very few guaranteed cash cows left to major label jazz as his classic material is endlessly re-packaged and resold.
When Columbia, at the end of the 1960s, realised that paths leading towards jazz/rock fusion were indeed paved with gold and divested itself of a regular acoustic jazz roster – musicians whose contracts weren’t renewed would include Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong, Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington and Keith Jarrett – they kept tight hold of Davis, even as the reach of his music was ready to embrace free improvisation, the ritualistic thinking of Karlheinz Stockhausen and the drill-bit funk of Sly and The Family Stone. And their investment, which stretched to cushioning Davis financially throughout that long period of silence during the seventies, has certainly paid dividends.
The doe-eyed adoration of Miles fans and the careful protection of his image by his estate notwithstanding, the totality of Davis’s recorded legacy is too defiant, volatile and at times unsettling to sit comfortably within mainstream consciousness. His evergreen 1959 Kind of Blue can be analysed note on note like a Schubert string quartet while also slotting unobtrusively inside the background chatter of a chain coffee store; but if you wanted to empty your local branch of Starbucks, pumping 1970s Davis like On The Corner, Miles Davis at Fillmore or Live Evil through the sound system would be the way to go. Unlike 2014’s Whiplash (a film with no basis in reality) jazz fans can clearly approach Cheadle’s movie without fear of intellectual insult… so long as it’s clear that no film would be likely to contain all the racial, musical and personal contradictions that Miles Davis represented. For that, you need to go back to the music. And listen hard.