|(image from Roger Ebert site)|
Saturday, December 17, 2016
Don Cheadle's "Miles Ahead" (2015) needs more joy
The trumpet is an odd instrument. There is a fine line between tasteful, powerful trumpet playing and a chafing effect. Davis owes many of his record sales to Ferguson. The youth who discovered Ferguson and other bandleaders in the 1970s began sifting through record bins and finding some fascination with Davis.
I must be brutally honest here. Go ahead and call me clueless. I have no natural inclination to listen to Davis. All that cool and bebop jazz sits out there fat and content in its pure artistry. I won't say there isn't a level of sophistication. But I'm relying on the judgment of others. None of that stuff gets me excited. I spent money on some of those vinyl records because the music intelligentsia was wowed by those artists.
I took a course in jazz at St. Cloud State University. It was not a course in which we would perform. It was a classroom study of the genre. I appreciated getting this knowledge. I learned things I didn't know before. It did not open the door for me truly liking to play a lot of the cool and bebop material. I listened to it out of a duty to try to understand. All us young, corduroy-wearing trumpet players (mostly male, let's admit) were lifted to ecstacy by Maynard and his band. We needed to admit to ourselves that it wasn't the jazz that attracted us. It was the full, powerful brassy sound of these bands, bands that often did covers of popular music.
Maynard did an arrangement of "MacArthur Park" that would elevate this fascinating man to the stratosphere of popularity, at least with that corduroy-wearing demographic. It ensured his place in the pantheon of bandleaders. Yes, those rowdy mobs at Ferguson concerts went crazy cheering for the improvisation by bari sax player Bruce Johnstone. Johnstone was a skinny man who looked like he might be challenged holding up that big bari instrument. All his solos sounded the same to me. We cheered because we were in the mood to cheer. We wouldn't have spent a nominal amount of money to hear Johnstone if he were top-billed. He and a couple bandmates finally left M.F. to form a group called "New York Mary." I suckered for buying their album. I'm not aware of them making any noise after that. Most often with those M.F. guys, you'll find when researching them today that the M.F. part of their background seems to define them. It was as if the M.F. band was a euphoric high that couldn't be replicated.
Mad for Maynard, interested in Miles
I emphasize Ferguson in this post because his flock was steered in the direction of appreciating the jazz artists whose work did not tend to induce wild ovations. We're talking Miles. You could impress your friends by saying you were into Miles Davis. You were "hip."
I watched the movie "Miles Ahead" (2015) which gives us a glimpse of Davis' life.
I hate to just repeat myself, but again I'll write as I did about the movie "Pollock" about the modern art guy, Jackson Pollock. I always have to verify the spelling of his name to make sure I don't spell it like it's a "Polack joke." Remember them? They were big in the 1960s but have disappeared. My main point about the movie "Pollock" was that it gave us the Hollywood stereotype of a brilliant artist who had all sorts of dysfunctional aspects with his personality and lifestyle. These artists are self-destructive as they appear on the screen.
There is a danger here. Young people can view these profiles, as with Hunter Thompson, and think the dysfunctional traits are part of being brilliant. These guys all had to be serious students of their craft before gaining fame. Fame itself can do bad things to people. They have their run and then they can slide downward, having acquired vices and perhaps getting jaded by having to deal with the business interests of their fields. So, they can seem rather pathetic.
We learn nothing in the movie about Pollock about how he developed under Thomas Hart Benton. I recall it only being mentioned once. Miles Davis studied at the Julliard School. He must have been a serious student for a time. The movie suggests he just picked up a trumpet and started playing some magical notes. As if his genius just sprang from the ether when he wasn't sniffing coke.
Hollywood worries that a movie can hurtle into boredom if the serious aspects of these guys get attention. Instead, Hollywood asserts "let's have a movie about Miles Davis that springs right out of the world of Starsky and Hutch." That's the primary point I wish to make about "Miles Ahead," the contemporary movie about Davis starring Don Cheadle.
A reviewer said "we know this isn't going to be a by-the-numbers History Channel book report." Well yes, we don't expect the real biographical approach, but then what license is acceptable? Do we really need to see Davis as sort of a lowlife willing to impulsively deck a journalist at his door? Don't you think a man this famous had to develop some gentlemanly traits, to at least be expedient some of the time? Young people who decide to behave in the edgy manner will have doors slammed on them. I almost wonder if the Davis movie conforms to a certain stereotype about African-Americans.
I watched this movie mainly out of a sense of obligation. I wanted to be pleasantly surprised. I remember being steered toward cool and bebop when I was in my early 20s. I heard Dizzy Gillespie at the St. Cloud State auditorium now named for Kimberly Ritsche. I thought it was terrible. Gillespie had zero physical command of his trumpet on that night. I guess St. Cloud wasn't big-time enough for him to conserve his "chops" for. It was painful watching him as he showed his trademark puffing out of his cheeks. He misstated where he was and had to be corrected by someone shouting from the audience. We laughed. But I found the night to be a chore for me being there. Most audience members, I'd assert, were puzzled about why we should consider this stuff brilliant. We were coaxed to think it was brilliant. It's that intelligentsia at work.
Many guys my age discovered this esoteric field of music because we attended Ferguson and Buddy Rich concerts. We drifted to see if we might develop a like enthusiasm for the cool and bebop jazz of the '50s. We applauded politely. But our heart was in the slickly disciplined music of the touring big bands. Buddy Rich leading his band on "Norwegian Wood." Woody Herman with "Superstar." Count Basie was the real deal too. Miles Davis? Maybe his music could be appreciated on a level that I couldn't reach. His music in the '50s was a departure from the plain vanilla pop music of the time, like it was a refuge. I don't need that today.
Trying to sound like Miles
I too am a trumpet player. I feel I could jam a Harmon mute into my instrument and sound rather like Davis myself. Just give me a real good rhythm section behind me. Del Sarlette and I have joked about how anyone could sound like Miles if we could only step out in front of a great rhythm section. We realize this is simplistic and rather absurd, but. . .
Davis had a grasp of music at a high level, his bio tells us, but the movie is all Starsky and Hutch. There is nothing noble about the lifestyle we see in the movie. We all thought "Undercover Brother" was cool and funny. We remember all the "blaxploitation" stuff. Understand mutha?
The movie "Miles Ahead" is dark and depressing.
We simply needed more joy
Music is defined by the joy it gives us. Certainly this movie needed an infusion of unfettered joy. At the very end we get a little, not enough. If Miles was truly a spectacular artist as he was presented, I'd like to learn more about his development and how he reached the pinnacle. It didn't "just happen." Ditto with Jackson Pollock. Miles wasn't some wandering fool.
People have their peccadilloes. Hollywood must think we're preoccupied with them. How about another movie to tell us more about Davis' sheer artistry? For that matter, how about a movie about Maynard Ferguson. "Scream a Little Scream with Me" (LOL). Maynard had his ups, his downs, "exiles" that took him to India and Great Britain (to escape tax problems?) and a triumphant comeback starting in1970. Let's have a toast. And that's no Polack joke.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org