The Miles Davis Movie: Highly-fictionalized, or just the facts?

Miles Davis: The Monterey Jazz Festival, 1969
© Paul Slaughter

A few days ago I spotted this photo gallery/feature on Yahoo! about the 10 Most Biographically Inaccurate Movies. Obviously it got me thinking about the Miles Davis biopic and what, if any, liberties should the screenwriters take in crafting the story of Miles Davis for a motion picture.

The feature, in no way a think piece you’d find in a film journal, focuses on movies like “Ray,” “The Hurricane” and “Amadeus” to make its point about bending the truth (here and there, ever so slightly) for the sake of entertainment, or a product with enough Hollywood appeal to attract a wide audience.

Are there parts of the life and career of Miles Davis a screenwriter would want to overlook, or perhaps shy away from? I’ve talked about how it’s impossible for the movie to cover everything, especially the twists and turns of his musical styles, but are there aspects of his personal life the writers might think to use caution in adapting for the screen?

With this question in mind I point to an article from 2001 I’ve noted before: Robin D. G. Kelley, a professor of history and Africana studies at New York University, wrote a piece for the NY Times entitled Miles Davis: The Chameleon of Cool; A Jazz Genius In the Guise Of a Hustler.

It’s a fascinating read and nicely illustrates the darkness and light (Kelley’s words) that characterize who Miles Davis is, what Miles Davis represents and how we choose to discuss one of the most influential and provocative artists ever.

Writes Kelley in one of the more telling passages of his article, “he is hailed as a musical genius and praised for the beauty and sensitivity of his playing while simultaneously criticized for his brutal treatment of women, his rude and exploitative behavior, his ”anger” toward whites or his ”selling out” to the forces of pop music. His most avid defenders have done their share of handwringing, explaining his idiosyncrasies as a feature of genius.”

As stated, it’s a teriffic article, and I highly recommend.

But back to the biopic. In my opinion the film doesn’t work on any level without the ‘darkness’ to balance the light; how much of the irascible Miles Davis the movie should hold is debatable, but as much as words like ‘cool’ and ‘romantic’ are used to describe Davis’ style and artistry, there is a dark underbelly to the story that is not pretty, for lack of a better word, at all.

And yet, it’s that struggle between the demon and angel inside Miles Davis that makes his life story so damn compelling. It’s a personal narrative tailor-made for books and movies. Hey, maybe one day someone will write an opera. Why not?

Just as “Ray” (as you know my go-to film example for biopics) blended the darker aspects of Ray Charles’ life, the Yahoo! feature happily points out that “…The movie ends with Ray kicking the habit and living happily ever after with his wife Della. While he did give up heroin, he continued to consume prodigious amounts of gin and marijuana until just before his death. And Ray and Della were divorced in 1976. Plus, he was never banned from playing in Georgia as the film claims.”

Guess what? I didn’t know that. And it doesn’t change how I feel about Ray Charles or the movie. I just assume most biopics are going to tweak the story — this is Hollywood, remember. There are plenty of books that fill in all the blanks and overlook nothing when it comes to a biography, but in the movies it’s a different ballgame. As long as it’s not some egregious omission, or laughable retelling of history I think we all can overlook some creative tweaking — in the name of entertainment, of course.

A biopic is a tough endeavor to begin with: you’ve got to please those that know little (or nothing) about the subject and those who know almost everything. Balance is vital, it’s the only way to achieve historical accuracy and entertainment value.

Something like Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” is definitely an adventurous take on the legend of Bob Dylan, whereas “Ray” (again) plays it pretty straight in an entertaining, A-to-Z style biopic.

I can only assume the Miles Davis film is going to follow the “Ray” method of storytelling, but I could be wrong. Even then, how much of the story is focused on the music versus the personal life? A split between the two is fine by me, but aha!, what makes a better movie to market to audiences? Fans of Miles Davis (and jazz lovers) aside, is the music the selling point? Or is it the legend?

My guess is someone even vaguely familiar with Miles Davis might see the movie based on a thrilling movie trailer that focuses on a remarkable – and cool – life (music! women! travel! fame! redemption! fortune!), as opposed to, say, because he’s the guy who recorded Seven Steps to Heaven. Exposure to jazz music, generally-speaking, is fleeting at best, so for marketing purposes you rev up the Hollywood machine with the time-tested devices that have been attracting people to the movies forever to help this biopic succeed at the box-office.

It ain’t easy, as it were….

Still, I am confident this Miles Davis biopic will be successful; I think the subject matter is prime, cinematic real estate for the creatively-inclined. There’s a reason someone or another has been trying to make this movie for years.

I don’t think the screenwriters will have to create any fictional characters to enhance the story, or stretch the truth in some way, but there’s plenty of real-life conflict and drama to sort through in telling the Mils Davis story. Here is a project that must blend fact with the greater significance of what Miles Davis represents.

In the end, I’ll take a well-rounded depiction that’s entertaining, intriguing and visually exciting. I’d say that’s a nice night at the movies.

(photo: Miles Davis, The Monterey Jazz Festival, 1969 — Paul Slaughter)


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