Greetings again from the darkness. What would rate as the bigger challenge: defining jazz or describing the life of Miles Davis? In true “passion project” mode, Don Cheadle not only portrays the iconic trumpeter, but also directs, co-writes and co-produces. Cheadle’s tribute to The Prince of Darkness is as open to interpretation as the hundreds of songs from Davis’ recordings over thirty plus years.
Having stated in numerous interviews that he had no interest in the usual “cradle-to-grave” biopic, Cheadle’s odd blend of fact, fiction and hallucination are meant to capture the essence of Miles Davis, rather than the life and times of the man. Guns, drugs, music, girls, and art are all present throughout this trippy trip of a movie that plays like an impressionistic painting, and not a portrait.
The bulk of the film is spent on Miles Davis during his self-imposed six year drug-fueled hiatus in the 1970’s when he secluded himself in Howard Hughes fashion. There is an odd and ill-fitting plot involving the “secret” master tapes that Davis has recorded while waiting for his manager (Michael Stuhlbarg as Harper Hamilton) to pay him the money he is owed. Mixed in is a “Rolling Stone” writer named Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) desperately trying to get an interview with Miles and listen to the tapes. This mad caper-ish core benefits greatly from the quick cuts to the past … especially those featuring Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) as Miles’ beautiful, talented and supportive wife.
Of course, we shouldn’t expect linear story-telling from a man whose life was anything but linear. After all, we are focused on the man who claimed his music was not “jazz”, but rather “Social Music” … and that “it takes a long time to play like yourself”. The car chases and gunfights might seem out of place, but do capture the essence of a man fueled by drugs and a possible (temporary) loss of his creative genius. Perhaps, as the movie suggests, Miles was remorseful for how he treated Frances. Or maybe it was simply the pressure of being Miles Davis …. The coolest of Cool Jazz.
Mr. Cheadle does a nice job in portraying Davis, and is spot on in the trademark raspy whisper which Miles was known for (the after-effects of a larynx operation in the 1950’s). Ms. Corinealdi (to appear in the new “Roots” project later this year) is outstanding as Frances Taylor, and is the one character we latch on to in hopes of maintaining our bearings throughout.
Taking its title from a 1957 Miles Davis album, the movie offers a glimpse into the mind of a musical genius who didn’t always fit into “proper” society, and would be the perfect pairing for a head-scratching trumpeter double-bill with the recent “Born to be Blue”, a look at Chet Baker.