Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our Star Rating (1-5): 4
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.
I had been looking forward to seeing this film about Miles Davis partly because Davis is featured in the recently reviewed film about white trumpet player Chet Baker, Born to Be Blue. In that film Davis scorns the white musician, telling him that he has not lived enough to be worthy of playing at Birdland. There is, of course, no mention of this minor (for Davis) incident because director/star/co-screenwriter Don Cheadle concentrates on the almost six year period in the ‘70s when Davis stopped performing and then made his “comeback.” He certainly has lived enough to play the blues, his live chaotic due to drugs, sexual promiscuity, and a fiery temper.
The filmmakers invent a fictional writer working for Rolling Stone intruding on the reclusive Davis—why they chose the name of a real life journalist important in the Gay Rights Movement, Dave Brill, seems strange to me, but inconsequential as far as the film goes. The film is structured around this interview, with Brill (Ewan McGregor) soon accompanying the pistol-packing Davis to recover his private recordings from the Columbia Records office in Manhattan. There’s a lot of threatening, shooting, and car chasing that I don’t know the truth about—inserted to make the film more exciting perhaps?
Don Cheadle is totally convincing as Davis, and his script does not cover up the man’s many flaws, especially his use of cocaine and his mercurial temper. Emayatzy Corinealdi is equally good as dancer Frances Taylor, who appears on the cover of his album Someday My Prince Will Come, and marries him. We see his self-centeredness when over the phone while she is on a successful tour in Asia, he insists that she return to him immediately because he needs her so much. His infidelities will lead to their break-up, and he will later on enter into two other marriages (including one to actress Cicely Tyson), but the film maintains that Taylor was a major inspiration for some of his ground-breaking music.
Some films about black musicians (e.g. Ray) stress the white racism that stood in the way of black musicians. Davis no doubt encountered plenty of this (which affected the way he saw the white Chet Baker as an interloper into his black world), but the film relates just one instance of this. Miles is helping a white woman outside his club one night when a white cop comes up to him under the assumption that he is bothering the woman. Even when they both try to explain the situation, the belligerent policeman arrests Davis and takes him to jail.
The film is filled with wonderful scenes of his music, which should please jazz lovers. Centering on the period just before Davis emerges from his “retirement,” this is not the film that will provide the details of his whole life—for this you can read the lengthy Wikipedia article on him at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miles_Davis. As mentioned earlier, the Rolling Stone reporter is fictional, used for dramatic effect, but the online article cannot provide the emotional effect of the film, nor the ear-pleasing effect of hearing his music. Although his addiction to drugs does show that he is “a slave to sin,” Davis still left us a priceless musical legacy. One more proof that flawed human beings can still be vessels of beauty and inspiration.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the June issue of VP.