The Miles Davis Movie: Filming the First Great Quintet

I’m re-posting this entry from July of last year for the Biopic Blog. We now know, via Don Cheadle, that the Miles Davis Movie is not going to follow the standard, Hollywood biopic blueprint. Fine. But regardless of how he develops the narrative and central focus, there’s a long list of people, places and events that must be included — unless the whole thing is just going to be off the charts, no-rules cinema.

They might be in the film for 3 minutes or 20, but there is no doubt the First Great Quintet must be represented.

The Miles Davis Movie: Filming the First Great Quintet

The year is 1955 and Miles Davis puts together the first version of the Miles Davis Quintet. The First Great Quintet as they are celebrated in the annals of jazz history.

It doesn’t get much better than John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (double bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums).

The first recordings of this group were made for Columbia Records in 1955, released on ‘Round About Midnight. Davis was still under contract to Prestige, but had an agreement that he could make recordings for subsequent releases using his new label. (Wikipedia)

To wrap things up for Prestige Davis and Co. hit the studio for two days in 1956 with producer Rudy Van Gelder.

The result?

Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet
Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet
Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet
Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

All are fantastic. All are a must-have.

They weren’t together long. Wonderful alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley joined in ’58, making it a sextet, as the group set out to record Milestones. But the collaboration produced some thrilling music. This was Miles Davis moving beyond bebop, progressing towards modal jazz.

I love the First Great Quintet because my first experience with Miles Davis was a copy of Steamin’ – the rest is history.

So… where the Miles Davis film is concerned one could imagine that the filmmakers would find a way to intertwine this legendary quintet into the story.

It’s a must.

These four recordings are classics in every sense. Recreating the action that took place on May 11, 1956 and October 26, 1956 would not only make for exciting ‘performance’ scenes in the film, but I feel are essential in telling the musical side of the Miles Davis story.

I always hark back to the film “Ray” as an example of a terrific biopic, so forgive my repetitiveness. But it’s a great movie and provides a blueprint for recreating a mega-famous persons’ life on the screen; and it’s a musical life, which compares with Miles Davis. However, both were supremely unique individuals, and I’m sure there are numerous methods a filmmaker might employ to produce an entertaining film about such artists.

I just like “Ray.” It’s my go-to example.

And speaking of “Ray,” I reacted strongly to the scenes with Ray in the studio (on stage as well); interacting with the band, the producers… a musical genius at ‘work.’

So the two sessions in ’56 by the First Great Quintet would seem likely ‘scenes’ to appear in a film about Miles Davis; you have the incredible band, the music and, most importantly, the opportunity to depict a prominent event that will add a sense of reality for those of us who can only imagine what it was like to be part of the experience.

We’re talking about minutes of screen time. Maybe this particular studio scene is inter-cut with the quintet on stage. I have no doubts the movie will slow down in all the right places for dramatic effect, but I don’t expect too many long scenes in the studio as the group runs through “If I Were A Bell.”

I think “Ray” has a nice balance of performance sequences – a montage always provides a nice opportunity to combine music and action -, each moving the story forward as required.

Of course “Ray” is a big, Hollywood movie. You expect the razzle-dazzle. We’re not sure how the Miles Davis movie is going to be ‘made’ and eventually distributed, so there’s no telling if it’ll be like “Ray,” or more like “Round Midnight,” an independent style movie.

My guess it’s somewhere in the middle – whatever that means. What would be a good example?

There’s always the argument that a song like “Hit the Road Jack” just lends itself to film easier than, say, “Oleo,” strictly in a performance setting – not as quality of music.

I could easily shift gears into a whole narrative about the equal visual excitement you get from watching Ray Charles croon “Drown In My Own Tears” and watching Miles Davis play “Summertime,” but I’ll save everyone the five paragraphs.

But here is where the magic of filmmaking comes to life! This is where you take a style of music decades past its glory era and make it sizzle! This is where cinematography and lighting and camera angles and grips and editing and all that renowned Hollywood propensity comes into play to make a scene with people playing jazz music jump off the screen.

Movies like “Chicago” and other stage to screen gems (I did not like the movie version of “Chicago,” btw) don’t use music you’d consider contemporary, but it’s people singing, so it offers a product more accessible to an audience rather than just people playing instruments.

There’s a big difference between jazz music as background sound and jazz music upfront as, one could argue, a character in the story.

But movie magic can, in the proper hands, take a scene with five amazing jazz musicians blazing on stage and not only electrify those already jazz lovers, but those new to the experience.

Don Cheadle is the conductor on this train, that’s for sure.

I just thought of “Mo Better Blues.” I like the film. And most of the music – provided by Branford Marsalis Quartet and Terence Blanchard – is pretty darn good.

If I recall Spike Lee allowed the ‘band’ to perform for a decent length of time and inter-cut some of those performance scenes with either dramatic or low-key moments.

A movie about Miles Davis and one about a fictional Bleek Gilliam is apples and oranges. But I was thinking of how the jazz performances were filmed and placed into the flow of the story.

I just like to play devil’s advocate. I think it’s all going to be great.

I’m happy just to see the First Great Quintet celebrated one way or the other in the movie – they, and their music, is most deserved.


3 thoughts on “The Miles Davis Movie: Filming the First Great Quintet”

  1. I love the Quintet and am a huge Davis fan generally. I personally wish that the producers do something not as strictly chronological like “Ray” and so something either left-field like the recent Dylan movie or like ‘Round Midnight’. One can get into the various facets of Davis’ personality without being so deliberate about hitting all albums and bands. Trying to do a chronilogical picture gets to be too didactic.

    In other words, pull people into his over-sized personality, creativity, need for change, drug use, womanizing, brilliance, etc. thru some kind of different method than the chronological. ‘Round Midnight is a great example because its set in basically a couple month time period but one get learn much about Gordan’s (Lester Young/Bud Powell) personality, creativity and life without spelling it out. Its more subtle than Ray, in my opinion. Plus, it has great players playing live!

    1. hi chuck –
      based on numerous comments from don cheadle i think you’ll get your wish for a non-traditional style biopic; they have mentioned a ‘deconstructed’ narrative, which definitely could be very interesting. there is certainly a fine line between producing an entertaining story and not just filming a connect-the-dots movie about davis’ life. ’round midnight’ is a good example, for sure!

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