By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER (review of ‘Miles Ahead’)Once you’ve seen Steve Allen walk like a smiling stick (or clarinet) through The Benny Goodman Story, or Forrest Whitaker stuck in glum pieties of pain as Charlie Parker in Bird – or even Dexter Gordon playing a sweet, aged version of himself in the reverent but moving Round Midnight – it is a high-relief pleasure to find such a risky, emotively bopping performance as Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis in Miles Ahead. Here is a raw, proud, angry, paranoid, jazzed man, less an icon than an artist who fears that his muse has fled.
Directing himself, Cheadle plays the great trumpeter in his silent, “lost” years from 1975 to 1980. The close-ups and outbursts that Cheadle gave himself are not vain. They offer insights as riffs of exposure, with feelings improvised like a terrific solo. The master of bluesy make-out ballads and then funk-rooted fusion sounds, now isolated, avoids his instrument and most friends. Davis’s 1989 memoir stated the reasons: “I felt musically drained, tired. I was beginning to see pity in people’s eyes when they talked to me … It was a long, painful road back to sanity and light.”
At times, trapped in his private refuge, Davis is like Philip Baker Hall’s lonely, spouting Nixon in Secret Honor, turning on a spit of rancid grievances. But Miles (unlike Dick) remains sexy in decay, and his profanity (in a raspy gravel voice that's almost another kind of horn) strikes erotic sparks. In his most emphatic, demonstrative performance since radio-TV spieler Petey Greene in Talk to Me (2007), Cheadle get ace help from cinematographer Roberto Schaefer and editors John Axelrad and Kayla Emter.
The scenes often have a lacerating flow and urgency, though the script (by Cheadle and Steven Baigelman) is bumpy. An opportunistic reporter (funny Ewan McGregor) breaks into Davis’s sacred space, and that leads to a violent pursuit involving a hidden session tape that Miles guards like future treasure. Past triumphs don’t interest him, and he isn’t at all sure there will be more. The tape, a sort of Hitchcock McGuffin device, dangles the issue. It provokes predatory music producers, cocaine jags and a chase that feels like a sop to the gangsta-rap audience.
Like most “biopix” films, Miles Ahead has predictable hooks: racism, addiction, star power, a lost love (impressive Emayatzy Corinealdi), an upstart trumpet challenger, jolting flashbacks to highs and lows. This is not a great movie, but it's a great portrait. The full thrust of dramatic tension, supported by the sensual flux of Miles’s music, is in Cheadle’s un-preening and stunningly frank performance. Perhaps no actor playing a musical god has used fewer notes to more piercing effect. That’s very Miles.
SALAD (A List)Here are Ten Top Jazz Movies with real musicians, in order of arrival: New Orleans (Armstrong, Holiday, Herman, 1947), The Benny Goodman Story (Krupa, Hampton, Wilson, Getz, 1956), St. Louis Blues (Cole, Kitt, Fitzgerald, Jackson, 1958), Jazz on a Summer’s Day (Armstrong, Jackson, Monk, Washington, 1959), All Night Long (Brubeck, Mingus, Dankworth, 1962), Round Midnight (Gordon, McKee, Hancock, 1986), Let’s Get Lost (Chet Baker, 1988), Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (Monk, Coltrane, Rouse, 1988), Kansas City (Belafonte, Redman, Chestnut, 1996) and Calle 54 (Puente, O’Farrill, Barbieri, Cachao, 2000).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)Miles Davis salutes Citizen Orson, and a Welles friend: “Now, it ain’t that I don’t love Frank Sinatra, but I’d rather listen to him than maybe get in his way by playing something that I want to play. I learned how to phrase from listening to Frank, and also to Orson Welles.” (From Miles: The Autobiography, by Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)For Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey “wanted full incarnation, warts and all, choosing to ‘stick with that anarchic humor, stick with him being a selfish bastard (and) a businessman out for himself.’ He also dis-incarnated, losing 47 pounds (183 to 136) on a diet of veg-and-fish cups. Most surprising, he told interviewer Tim McMasters, was gaining ‘an amazing amount of energy from the head up’ as his body skeletized.” (From the McConaughey/Dallas Buyers Club chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies)
DESSERT (An Image)A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club (Focus Features; director Jean-Marc Vallee, cinematographer Yves Belanger)