The spring was crowded with new film biographies of famous musicians, including Marc Abrahams’ I Saw the Light starring Tom
Hiddleston as Hank Williams and Robert Budreau’s Born to be Blue with Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker. The film among them that received the most distribution and
publicity was Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s film about an episode in the life of Miles Davis, with himself in the starring role.
Miles Ahead, with a screenplay co-written by Cheadle and Steven Baigelman, was Cheadle’s dream project—one that took him
a decade to bring to the screen. I went to the film with high expectations: Cheadle is one of my favorite actors, and I wanted to see the revelations he could bring to
Davis’ life story as director and screenwriter. Cheadle certainly nails the role of Davis, capturing his trademark gravel voice and his badass demeanor. In the
film’s better scenes, Cheadle goes further, showing the price Davis paid, in loneliness and despair, for constantly having to be the coolest guy in the room.
However, the story of Miles Ahead left me dumbfounded. Essentially, it is a day in Davis’ life in what was perhaps his
lowest period, in the late 1970s. Davis was living as a recluse in his trash-filled Manhattan brownstone, awash in cocaine and
booze, not performing and not recording. He did, however, have a session tape hidden away, and the center of the story is the
efforts of unscrupulous record producers—especially one played by Michael Stuhlbarg, whose character lacks only a pencil-thin
mustache to twirl—to get their hands on the tape.
Unfortunately for the film’s credibility, the story is a total invention. The villains are fictional, and so is Dave Brill (Ewan
MacGregor), the writer purportedly working for Rolling Stone who shows up unannounced at Davis’ door to interview him.
Davis greets him with a punch in the mouth, but soon Brill is Davis’ new best friend, helping him first to shake down
producers at Columbia Records for unpaid royalties and later in a car chase, complete with gunplay, to get his stolen tape back.
If you’re saying “WTF?” right now, believe me so was I. I respect
Cheadle’s intentions to subvert the stale conventions of film biopics to tell deeper truths about Davis’ character and career.
But intentions and achievements are different things.
It’s scarcely a new thing to invent fictional stories about real
people. Combining historical figures with fictional characters is at least as old as Shakespeare. There are many such works of
serious intent, and many more of trivial intent. To give just one example of the latter, everyone my age grew up with Fess Parker
playing first Davy Crockett and then Daniel Boone, doing things the real-life men would never have done, and meeting people
they never could have met. No one took these for serious biographies; they were boys’ adventure stories, and as a boy I loved them.
It’s also not new for directors and screenwriters to try and break free from the stultifying templates of film biographies, especially
those of artistic geniuses. One notable example of this is 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould, Francois Girard’s 1993 film
starring Colm Feore as Gould, another notoriously eccentric and elusive character. The title says it all: Girard and co-screenwriter
Don McKellar create 32 vignettes designed to illuminate Gould’s life and character. The fragmented yet coherent set of films,
resembling in structure the Bach keyboard works so strongly associated with Gould’s career, makes much more sense in
telling Gould’s story than a linear screenplay would have done.
Gould’s performances of Bach on the 32 Short Films soundtrack
do a lot to make the film work, and Cheadle’s judicious choice of Davis’ music has a similar effect on Miles Ahead. Cheadle affects
a free-form, improvisational directorial style, using still photos and short bits of animation overlaid with Davis’ music to switch
between scenes. The biggest switches are those between the fictional story and the flashback scenes between Davis and
Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), Davis’ ex-wife. Taylor, a successful dancer, gave up her career to marry Davis, and saw
him through some harrowing times, including the incident—depicted in the film—in which cops beat up and
arrested Davis just for the hell of it. Yet despite Taylor’s obvious devotion, Davis drove her away through his maniacal jealousy and violent temper. Miles Ahead presents Taylor as the love of
Davis’ life, and much of the dislocation he feels is caused by his grief at losing her.
The problem with Miles Ahead is that the scenes between Davis and Taylor feel real and serious in a way that the other scenes
just don’t. Are we really to suspend our disbelief so much as to accept that Miles Davis rode shotgun around the streets of New
York, shooting his enemies to death with a guy he barely knew behind the wheel? Are we to think this tells us important things
about his life and art that we didn’t know before?
It doesn’t help that these scenes play like an assembly-line,
B-grade thriller. It also doesn’t help that the characters Cheadle and Baigelman created are dull. Toward the end, the audience
would be more than happy to line up behind Davis to give Dave Brill a punch in the mouth.
A much more successful example of film biography aired May 21 on HBO. All the Way, Jay Roach’s film with a screenplay by
Robert Schenkkan based on Schenkkan’s play, is both an exciting story about a crucial moment in American history and
an incisive portrait of one of America’s most controversial presidents.
Bryan Cranston, repeating his Broadway role as Lyndon Baines Johnson, is extraordinary. Cranston looks much more like LBJ
than you ever thought he could (kudos to the makeup department), but beyond that he captures everything we know
about the historical figure, in ways that leave us awestruck.
Cranston comes at us full-force, presenting Johnson’s idealism, charm and political savvy, but also the hot-tempered cruelty and
bullying he inflicted on everyone close to him, including Lady Bird (Melissa Leo). Cranston’s Johnson is a great leader, but also
despicably petty and two-faced. In one scene he tells a loyal staffer he’s the son he never had; five minutes later, after that
same staffer is caught in a homosexual scandal, Johnson throws him to the wolves. (Among other things, All the Way reminds us
that gay rights are a very recent, and still fragile, phenomenon.)
All the Way tells the story of the Johnson administration from John F. Kennedy’s assassination through passage of the Civil
Rights Act and the 1964 election. In some ways it functions as a companion piece to Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which covers events
just after the election, including (of course) the march on Selma and passage of the Voting Rights Act. Just as Selma is the story
of Martin Luther King and his allies, with Johnson as a major supporting player, so All the Way is the story of LBJ and his
staff, with MLK as a major supporting player. Both films make the historical events they portray a matter of edge-of-your-seat
excitement, and I hope HBO plays them as a double feature someday.
Anthony Mackie, playing King in All the Way, is less commanding than David Oyelowo in Selma, but the same can be
said about Tom Wilkinson playing Johnson in Selma compared with Cranston. In any case, the acting in both films is praiseworthy. In All the Way, the runner-up honors to Cranston
probably belong to Frank Langella as Louisiana Senator Richard B. Russell, avuncular and gracious yet tied to a hateful, racist
system, whose once-close relationship with Johnson grows ever more distant as the Civil Rights Act progresses.
All the Way isn’t perfect. For example, Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford) had more backbone against Johnson’s
bullying than the movie portrays. But the film is dead-on in portraying the costs of the war for civil rights. Just after the
passage of the Civil Rights Act, Humphrey congratulates Johnson. Johnson turns to him with a world-weary expression
and says, “We just lost the South—for my lifetime, and probably for yours.” Decades have passed, and the South is still lost.
All the Way shows, almost offhandedly, the tragic consequences
of Johnson’s obsessiveness. In one scene, Johnson tells Robert McNamara (Bo Foxworth) to order more air strikes against the
Viet Cong. “Now we can get back to the important issues,” Johnson says as McNamara leaves. Immediately after that line,
you could hear a crash; that was the hearts of the audience, falling simultaneously through the floor.