Here’s a film about Miles Davis, possibly the most innovative (along with Charlie “Bird” Parker) jazz musician ever, and it’s not really about the life of Miles. Here’s what director-writer-star Don Cheadle had to say: “The approach to the film was not to produce a biopic but to create plausible though largely fictional vignettes of Davis’ life that interpreted the creative process Davis used in the composition of his music.” Well, I wish I had known that before we watched the movie, because I spent almost two hours looking at the sordid, clichéd events presented here and assumed that Miles was one of the biggest assholes who ever lived. Now, I understand that a lot of people say he actually was a pretty big asshole, but if so, I’d prefer to have seen real incidents. This movie shuttles back and forth between scenes of the trumpet player as a younger man. In the earlier stuff he is abusive and unfaithful to his wife, demanding she give up her career as a dancer so she can tend to him full-time. Same old story, huh? Well, it was the ‘50s, lots of that going around. (Still is, but fewer women are willing to put up with it.) In the later scenes, he and Ewan McGregor as a reporter for Rolling Stone go through a lot of dope and violence trying to retrieve a studio tape, the first he has done in five years, that was stolen from him. In the course of this he kills one of the thieves. Never happened.
Miles was definitely pretty fucked up, from coke and pain killers, and went five years without playing. One thing I liked, as an old brass player. When he finally picked up a horn again, he couldn’t blow a note. Same thing happened to me when I picked up a French horn after two decades away from it. Brass players need to play every day, or almost that frequently, or they lose their embouchure, which is a fancy word for “lip.”
Cheadle is good, but the movie left me unsatisfied. The best thing about it is to hear the music. Back in the day I owned a copy of Sketches of Spain. Pretty much everybody did, filed right next to Take Five, the other jazz album everybody owned. But I had no idea that Miles made over 100 albums. The thing is, with most “progressive” jazz, I can enjoy it when I hear it once, but I’d never in a thousand years want to play the same track again. I can’t imagine wanting to own one of his live show recordings. I can admire his technique and sort of follow where he’s going with it, but frankly, a lot of it just sounds like jacking off, to me.