Written by Peter Bradshaw
courtesy of www.theguardian.com
There comes a time in the life of any creative artist, or maybe any ambitious careerist, when a wave of middle-aged tiredness brings an awful dilemma. Do you stop and give yourself a much-needed rest after which you will return stronger and fresher and more creative than ever? Or is surrendering to the tiredness a fatal mistake: an irreversible slide into ennui from which you will never return? Maybe submitting to inaction is a painful but necessary price to pay for the creative process – even if the creativity is at an end. Don Cheadle’s excellent movie about jazz musician Miles Davis places itself in the centre of just such a situation.
We find ourselves alongside Davis in his wilderness years, the burnout period of the mid to late 70s, when he was living as a virtual recluse in his New York apartment, not performing, living on advance payment cheques from Columbia Records that theoretically gave the company ownership of the private experimental recordings that Davis was supposedly working on. Davis spends his alone time nursing a serious case of mojo loss: brooding, painting, scowling, calling radio stations to complain about them playing the wrong Miles Davis records and hitting a boxer’s punchbag, shouting the rhythmic phrase: “Get itback!
This is a labour of requited love for Cheadle, a subject he clearly feels passionate about that responds to his touch. As well as directing, co-writing and even composing some music, Cheadle plays husky voiced, cantankerous Miles Davis himself. He is whip-thin, with dark glasses and hair grown out into a frizzily dysfunctional halo: drinking and doing coke, in constant pain from a hip disease and cultivating a poisonous paranoia about being exploited. Ewan McGregor plays Dave Brill, a (fictional) British journalist claiming to work for Rolling Stone, who doorsteps Davis and wheedles his way into his life, keen to churn out some gonzo reportage about Davis’s new Howard Hughes existence.
McGregor is arguably yet another example of the white partner that Hollywood requires of its African-American stars, but his character is a legitimate incarnation of white hangers-on; he is dramatically subservient in the right way and also an excellent comic foil. Dave’s Brit way of speaking confuses Davis (“I was off my tits last night!” “Your tits? What?”), but he grumpily lets Dave be his assistant and bag-carrier for an ongoing project: a war of words and much else with Columbia Records and with a certain creepy producer-manager – marvellously played by Michael Stuhlbarg – who misappropriates a precious reel of tape with Davis’s new stuff.
It’s a movie that refreshingly avoids the cliches of linear music biopics; what Cheadle does is keep us in the present day, which itself unfolds eventfully enough, as Dave seeks to get in Miles’s good books by furnishing him with some top-quality drugs, and so showing that he is a parasitic enabler who really isn’t going to help anyone but himself.
But coolly, Cheadle takes us away from this present tense into flashbacks showing his former bebop existence; the sudden shortness of hair and conventional clothes denote the time shift very efficiently. He holds these flashbacks an audacious length of time, so they feel like an ongoing present, and so returning to the previous situation is a dizzying and disorientating flashforward. We see his unhappy relationship with his beautiful former wife, dancer Frances Taylor, intelligently played by Emayatzy Corinealdi. Davis demanded that she abandon her career to be an old-fashioned wife to him, and rewarded this sacrifice by treating her negligently, hitting her (though the movie perhaps fudges the details here) and fooling around with other women. So now he is on his own: a lonely man, swamped in regret.
Maybe there is one cliche, or near-cliche. Cranked up with rage, Davis makes a personal appearance in the sleek offices of Columbia Records and fires a gun at a terrified A&R guy who had presumed to remind Davis of his contractual obligations. Present in the room is a wannabe musician, played by Keith Stanfield, who was Snoop Dogg in the recent Straight Outta Compton, in which musicians also smashed up the recording company’s offices. Shooting up the smug suits’ fancy pad is a scene that will probably continue to feature in music biopics.
Loyally, gallantly, Cheadle insists on an important and positive outcome for this fallow time, marked though it is by bizarre and black-comic escapades. It is a mark of his generosity and his excellent performance that we’re rooting for Miles Davis’s comeback, too. This could be Don Cheadle’s finest hour.