The Miles Davis Movie: Filming the death of Miles Davis

On Sunday we marked the 17th anniversary of Miles Davis’ passing — ‘Miles Davis, Trumpeter, Dies; Jazz Genius, 65, Defined Cool’ (a well-written nytimes obit).

It got me wondering if a movie about Miles Davis would explore the days in September of ’91 leading up to his passing at St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.

Davis had been at the hospital for several weeks according to reports, and I really have no knowledge of who was with him (I assume family) and what went on, other than Davis trying to survive.

But I wonder if the film being developed by Don Cheadle will even work its was up to (and beyond?) his death. My go-to biopic example, “Ray,” stopped around the time Ray Charles kicked his drug addiction and went on with his legendary career. Cue the touching montage and notes about Charles until we are shown the title card with the date of his death.

It’s a nice style to wrap up a film because a montage can zoom over time and it leaves the director not having to worry about cramming every significant moment into a movie.

This method could, I gather, work for a Miles Davis movie. I have already wondered if Davis electric period will even be explored, much less his work during the ’80s.

I think the film would suffer if they didn’t get into the period of the late ’60s and early ’70s and the jazz-funk fusion he essentially built.

Even “Walk the Line” wrapped it up after Johnny Cash kicked drugs. And maybe that’s fine. We probably didn’t have to spend an extra thirty minutes watching Cash in the ’80s and so on. I know “Lady Sings the Blues” worked its way up until almost the end of Billie Holiday’s life; it’s flawed, but I like the movie, and I like the montage of news reports that plays at the end opposite Holiday (portrayed by Diana Ross) performing at Carnegie Hall. Of course the last clip is her obituary.

It’s important to frame a story properly when dealing with a real person (same holds true for fiction, but more leeway because, well, you’re making it up!). In most cases going from young to old can work. But in the case of Miles Davis we don’t have 4 hours to devote to film, so one must put a blueprint together of essential plot points and from where we’ll enter and exit the story.

If I had to bet right now I would say his death (including the ’80s altogether) will not be explored except via montage. I could be wrong, but I just have that feeling.

The question is: at what point in the film, and that is to say in the life of Miles Davis, do they stop the narrative and wrap the rest of his life up in a cool montage?

He had already kicked drugs at a much younger age so that’s out. How about after the Second Great Quintet and before the jazz-rock fusion period? Perhaps 1981 when Davis returned after a six-year retirement. Or better yet right before his six-year retirement.

Maybe they cut the story after 1959 and the recording of ‘Kind of Blue.’

It’s a tough one. And then again perhaps they make big jumps in the narrative in order to cover the bulk of his life. I haven’t even begun to wonder about how they delve into his youth, in east St.Louis, much less his passing in ’91.

Miles Davis would be 82 if he were with us today. It’d be fun to hear what he thinks about all this.


Miles Davis dies on this day in 1991

Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis dies in Santa Monica, California, at age 65. The son of a St. Louis dentist, Davis began playing trumpet at age 13 and was playing with local jazz bands by his late teens. He moved to New York to study at Julliard and became roommates with saxophone great Charlie Parker. Davis struggled with heroin addiction but kicked the habit by 1954, the year he began releasing successful singles, including “Blue ‘n’ Boogie” and “Walkin’.” He assembled a jazz group called the Miles Davis Quintet, which became enormously popular, releasing classic albums like Round Midnight (1956). In the 1960s, Davis became interested in rock and began fusing jazz and rock to create an innovative sound. His 1968 album Bitches Brew was a major hit. Davis continued to produce popular recordings until his 60s. He died of pneumonia and other ailments.

The Miles Davis Movie: Better as indie-flick or Hollywood blockbuster?

I haven’t spoken to Don Cheadle. I haven’t read the script. I have no clue what the distribution plans are at the moment. I have no idea what the budget is/will be.

We do know a movie about Miles Davis is happening (right?), and all signs are a ‘go’ from Cheadle and his team.

In these frustratingly early stages, what’s hard to measure is whether or not this film is ticketed to be like “Ray,” or more like “Little Miss Sunshine” – one an example of a movie cut from an excellent Hollywood fabric, and the other a solid example of independent film-making (even though the parameters of what constitutes an independent film these days has changed dramatically from years past.)

It’s about money, really. Big money gets you “The Dark Knight” and small funds get you “Juno” – both equally entertaining and popular in their own way.

Lord knows big budget doesn’t guarantee success or any semblance of being entertaining, just as shoe-string movie-making doesn’t equal commercial or critical success.

So for the Miles Davis movie we don’t really know what it’s going to be – though I think we can agree it’s not going to have the budget of a “Transformers.”

But if you could make the film about Miles Davis what would you prefer: Hollywood extravagance or indie-cool.

I’ll pathetically sit on the fence and say I’d opt for a dash of both.

It’s not a film about space invaders and we don’t need to recreate World War I, so no need for the mega budget, but I wouldn’t mind throwing some extra cash towards A-plus production design and whatever else goes into the overall look and feel of the final product.

Don Cheadle is an Oscar-nominated actor, so with him comes much deserved attention and interest in the film. He’s not Will Smith in terms of box office glory and this isn’t “Hancock,” but at least in regards to the film’s star (and director) we’re in good company where industry respect and pop culture status is concerned.

But even with Cheadle, would a movie about Miles Davis be better served without any glitz? Is it better to have a less-polished approach to the storytelling?

Because I use “Ray” as my de facto example for just about everything regarding the Miles Davis movie I’ll admit that I wouldn’t mind if the Miles Davis flick mirrored some of the style of the Ray Charles biopic.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t bet against a stripped-down film about Miles Davis. Maybe a gritty take on the jazz legend lends itself better to the overall themes of his life, as opposed to a film that’s too sparkling, unable to bring the darker elements of the story.

Regardless of budget and marketing, Hollywood flash or indie cool, the movie has to be… good. Yep, ‘good’ is totally subjective when it comes to entertainment, but any film, I think, must resonate with the audience – on some level.

It needn’t be “Citizen Kane,” but it needs to be better than “From Justin to Kelly.”

A big factor in all this is Don Cheadle – director. Because the Miles Davis flick will be his directorial debut we don’t have any previous work to analyze. I’ve discussed the idea of Cheadle as the right choice to direct the movie, but it’ll be interesting to see what style he employs, which might/might not be directly associated to the budget.

I’m going to see the Miles Davis movie no matter what. My expectations are high, both for its critical and commercial success. I don’t think it’s an easy undertaking to bring the trumpeter to life, but I have faith – I have faith the filmmakers will capture the magic and create an entertaining and engaging movie about Miles Davis that appeals to moviegoers across the board.

How they go about achieving that final goal remains to be seen – only time will tell….

The Miles Davis Movie: Do we need a movie about Miles Davis?


I could have left it at that, but I bring up the topic based on an interesting comment posted on this site by Todd who wrote:

A movie about Miles Davis? Impossible. Miles is more a concept and a state of mind – not a persona as a movie needs to portray. I have loved Miles and his music for my entire adult life, but a movie just won’t work. He transcends anything like that.

Of course we’re all entitled to our cinematic opinions (do I think we need endless remakes of good-to-great films of yesteryear? Nope!), but I figured I would take Todd’s view that a film version about Miles Davis is a futile task and open it up a bit to include some broader themes.

Hey, from the looks of it we’re a ways off from any kind of Miles Davis movie hitting the big screen so I need all the material I can get!

Whether or not the story of Miles Davis should or should not be produced for a movie is up for debate; the subject surely contains the necessary elements that make up what one might deem an entertaining film-going experience.

There have been movies made about the most famous people ever and those perhaps known only to a few. If you can find drama, conflict, humor, etc. in a life then you have some kind of basis for a film.

Some people want to see a movie about Moses and others want to see a movie about Andy Kaufman. I tend to like bio-pics and movies based on historical events. I feel like I can be entertained and learn a little something in the process.

With any film about a real person comes the gigantic charge for the filmmakers to keep the project as true to its subject as possible. Jamie Foxx looked and sounded like Ray Charles, so right there it was easy to go along for the ride. Todd Haynes’ contemplation on the life of Bob Dylan in “I’m Not

There” might not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but one cannot say it wasn’t daring in its storytelling style.

For the most part I am under the assumption that the Don Cheadle-directed Miles Davis movie will follow the normal route of bio-pics such as “Ray,” with perhaps some creative flourishes thrown in to give the narrative some extra spark. Without having seen the script I can only wonder if they run through Davis’ entire life, or maybe drop in on various important moments in flashback form.

The super fans of Miles Davis (and maybe jazz fans in general) will certainly look at every detail of the movie to see if the filmmakers got it right, but for a general audience with either a passing interest in Miles Davis and jazz music, or just taking a chance on a Saturday night looking for some movie entertainment, broader themes will be what draws them in, keeps them interested.

Even if you’d never heard one Miles Davis song in your life, you still should be able to enjoy the film as a slice of appetizing entertainment. Those cinematic themes, which they teach in film schools, are the usual foundations upon which almost all movies are built. Not all! And that’s a good thing because the Hollywood formula sure can deliver some a-plus garbage, but the types of storytelling techniques that cater to a ‘broader’ audience.

We know the Miles Davis movie is not going to be “The Dark Knight” in terms of media hype, budget, etc., but the appeal should be there for audiences who also went to see “Walk the Line,” “Ray” and even an indie hit like “La Vie En Rose.”

These are all recent examples, but you get the point.

While Todd figures Miles Davis is more a state of mind – heck, I say he should be placed next to fire, water, wood, earth and metal in the five elements – and seemingly unable to peg down in cinematic form, I will assume he was a real-life person, and as such had one helluva life, on the stage and off.

But I get what Todd is saying. Can a 2 or 3 hour movie really do justice to the larger than life Miles Davis? Super fans like myself might prefer an 8-hour film with intermissions, but I am betting a well-edited 2 ½ hour flick about the life of Miles Davis might do the trick for the masses.

Some might say a film could never nail down a story of organized crime families in this country but “The Godfather” pretty much does the trick.

But capturing the spirit of Miles Davis is the trick – a point in line with Todd’s comment. This falls to Don Cheadle. Miles Davis is an iconic figure and Cheadle has to do more than simply act as Miles Davis, but inhabit his style, his inner-conflict and his talent. No small task, but my confidence has been high from the start.

Perhaps a movie cannot fully capture who Miles Davis was/is and his influence on music and culture. Maybe we need Ken Burns to produce a 5-part documentary, which definitely would not suck.

But a movie about Miles Davis feels right. Whether or not it becomes a classic, or simply fondly recalled by fans is unknown, but he is someone who should get the Hollywood treatment, for lack of a better phrase.

As far as Miles Davis goes, anyone who has the word ‘icon’ attached to their name at one time or another would seem to be a good subject for the Hollywood and/or indie-film treatment.

If they can make a movie about a Beverly Hill’s Chihuahua then by God one of the most influential musicians of all time can lock some time in at the local movie theatre.

Kind of Blue – celebrating the 50th anniversary

Columbia/Legacy recordings will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’s landmark album, Kind of Blue, with the release of a special collector’s edition that will include the original album, alternate takes, a DVD jazz documentary, and more.

The box set will be released on September 30th.

Packaged in a 12-inch slipcase box, the 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition will include:

• Two CDs (original album plus studio sequences, false starts, and alternate takes from 1958-59 sessions, plus 17-minute “So What” live in Holland, 1960);

• DVD: newly-produced documentary featuring superstars of jazz;

• 60-page 12×12 full-color book, tons of photos; and

• 180-gram blue vinyl 12-inch LP — first time ever in a Legacy box set.