If you’re going to tell a story, come with some attitude, man.
Writing about music isn’t easy. It’s tempting to write about the music itself. Problem is, music isn’t a thing, per se. All stories are about relationships. Music, like novels or films, are a container for the passions that ebb and flow in our relationships. Echo chambers that capture who we are. So, to write about the power of music, one must explore relationships.
In creating Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle captures where music comes from beautifully. The movie stitches together two inter-related stories. In one, we meet Miles stuck in a five-year artistic slump, an aging man in a gnarly housecoat limping around his apartment. It is a vast 1970s palace, with a spiral staircase, a baby grand piano, a disco dance hall of a kitchen and a semi-circular lounge area waiting for an audience to watch the dancers dance. Those glittering days long gone, the space Miles limps through is littered with papers, garbage and bottles. A festering womb. Miles listens to a reel-to-reel tape as if trying to find something in the sound. As he listens, all we hear is the roar of a crowd and a sportscaster calling a boxing match. During a party, the reel-to-reel tape is stolen, and a chase ensues.
Then in a flash we are shown his first wife, Frances Taylor, resplendent in blue in the apartment during its glory days. She stands regal by the piano, confident, and yet vulnerable. She is grace, beauty, a confection of a young woman. She escapes up the spiral staircase, away from Miles who is stuck forward in the late ’70s, struggling to find where or how his muse disappeared.
These two stories intertwine through quick cuts and flashbacks. Cheadle fuses film techniques with theatrical over and again. Similar to BirdMan in its use of stagecraft, but where that movie never got me to care about the stakes, this movie packs emotional meat. And it is dripping.
My fave use of theatrical convention: A door that opens up into the past. Miles is in an elevator at Columbia records. He came asking for money and was turned down. They can’t give him more money until he delivers music. The elevator walls display album covers (Davis’ Sketches of Spain next to Bob Dylan). He leans into them, listening, hearing what he once was. He pushes at the back of the elevator. The wall becomes a door opening into a club. He walks into the past, walks on stage, and he is playing at his prime.
Emotional progress doesn’t come to us through words, but through tableau, images that convey so much more in less time.
On the call to his wife Frances, he convinces her to fly home from London (where she is dancing to rave reviews). After the call, he walks into their bedroom where two women lay naked, intertwined in the sheets on the bed. Collections of polaroids unwind across the sheets, the screen: Miles and these women doing drugs, having sex, doing drugs.
Miles asks Frances to give up her career, which she does and the fights begin. We aren’t given the laundry list of reasons for their each disagreement. Not needed.
Frances and Miles fling bottles at each other. They fall, breaking furniture, both bruised and stunned. He runs away to his studio where musicians wait for him as she cries on the sofa. When she wakes up the next morning in bed, on the bed next to her, in Miles’ place, is a diamond and ruby necklace. On the bedside table are white roses, in a box a fur coat. He enters, sits behind her and pulls the necklace onto her neck, fastening the clasp and then holding her. Cheadle doesn’t tell us how she is trapped, he shows us and in doing so, we feel the noose of those diamonds.
Music is the crease in our hearts flung into the air with a gasp. It is emotion distilled into sound so it has a physical presence, a resonance, a beat.
Miles Ahead is a stunning example of how to bring the thing that is music to life, by showing us what music captures: our passions.
“Play wrong strong.”
Check out the other posts in the Movies About Musicians series on DownToJam’s blog:
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