Tomorrow Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s new film about some of the darkest days of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, will open in New York and Los Angeles. One week later, beginning on April 8, there will be openings in San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC, and Boston, followed by nationwide distribution beginning on April 15. Cheadle clearly went to great lengths to understand, to the best that reliable evidence allows, just how difficult a character Davis was; but he also seems to have gone to equally great lengths to understand his contributions to the jazz repertoire and to find effective pairings of music with his narrative.
This is no easy matter. Most importantly, Cheadle’s narrative is not a linear traversal of the “real” timeline. Instead, from the very beginning of the film, he bobs back and forth, denying the viewer a confident vantage point, just as the best prize fighter knows how to deny his opponent the opportunity for a good punch. (As one might guess, Davis’ interest in boxing is not overlooked in this film.) Furthermore, Cheadle’s jumbling of episodes is matched with some of the harshest dissonance (both visual and auditory) one is likely to encounter this side of La Monte Young. (For those unfamiliar with Young’s work, think of fingernails on a blackboard.)
The result is an uncompromising examination of a personality so ill-formed that Davis almost makes Richard Wagner look like a model citizen. The major difference is that the Wagner film lasted six hours (as if to honor the scope of his music). Cheadle’s film almost streams by at a mere 100 minutes (although there are definitely some very unpleasant moments that make it feel much longer).
To be fair, Cheadle does not focus all of his jaundiced views on Davis himself. He is particularly unkind to Columbia Records; and, on the basis of other (more “historical”) accounts of how that business treated its jazz talent, it would be fair to say that the Columbia legacy deserved every sucker punch that Cheadle landed. There is even one brief episode in which Cheadle takes on the issues raised by Amiri Baraka in 1963 (when he was still writing as LeRoi Jones) in the essay “Jazz and the White Critic.” (Since I happen to be such a critic, I was somewhat thankful that Cheadle made his point, which is that white critics almost always lack the proper frame of reference for listening to jazz, without belaboring it.)
The fact remains, however, that watching this film is not a pleasant experience. One can admire Cheadle for taking on such an intense narrative, just as one can admire his efforts to portray Davis convincingly. Nevertheless, this is not a trip for everyone, particularly those who choose to remember Davis for albums like Sketches Of Spain (one of the few targets to get off with only a polite ribbing). When Davis does emerge from the shadows of his own making, it is to continue the path he had begun before withdrawing from public view, what now tends to be called his “electric” and/or “funk” period. Any debating as to whether this was a major milestone in Davis’ career can be put aside in approaching this conclusion to the narrative. Nevertheless, those who go into this film without false expectations are likely to find much food for thought in Cheadle’s version of “The Miles Davis Story.”