The Miles Davis Movie: Which Way Are We Going?

Interesting article in the NY Times Sunday about biopics.

The Miles Davis Biopic was not mentioned, obviously(!), but the points made by Dennis Lim about the delicate craft of producing a successful biopic can be easily connected to the Miles Davis Movie – and the many hurdles it faces as the project remains in an ongoing and agonizing cycle of development.

Often maligned yet ever popular, the biopic is surely the most reductive of movie genres. All biographers face the task of wrangling the unruly particulars and generally undramatic shape of a life and a career into a coherent narrative. Writers working on doorstop-size volumes find this hard enough; a two-hour movie wrestles with the same challenges more acutely — and is much more likely to fail.

For as long as I have been writing about the movie, ‘narrative’ remains the biggest issue/talking point, and will surely determine whether or not Don Cheadle’s ‘deconstructed’ style succeeds in telling the story of Miles Davis.

At their worst, biopics indulge the vanity of an actor with an eye on an Oscar nomination. They betray the heavy hand of a screenwriter who has created composites and streamlined events to fit a three-act structure or the familiar arc of rise-fall-rise. When not stretching the facts, they get bogged down in mere data. They diminish their subjects or else succumb to hagiography. More often than not we know how they will end.

Well, Cheadle has already tossed out a doozy of a quote by saying his concept for the movie features “wall-to-wall truth,” but is “not really much concerned about facts.” The ‘facts’ quote certainly raised a few eyebrows; are we headed for something more like Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” a creative mash-up of reality and fiction? Two hours isn’t enough time to tell the whole story, but we hope Cheadle keeps the narrative along the lines of fact, rather than some bizarre story inspired by Miles Davis.

I truly believe the Miles Davis Biopic could vault Cheadle into serious Oscar contention, along with other nominations for the film; I noted that the Miles Davis Biopic might have just enough blend of a really good movie, the Don Cheadle factor and the Academy’s desire to honor the legacy of an entertainment icon to bring home the gold.

But I don’t think Cheadle is going to let the Oscar element influence how he pieces the film together.

And because there is an expectation that biopics will reveal something previously unknown about public figures, they often pin their protagonists to the psychiatric couch, rummaging about in their journals or childhoods in search of the Rosebud — to borrow a term from that veiled biopic “Citizen Kane”— the skeleton key that will explain everything.

Not sure there are any ‘big’ secrets out there. Just getting through Davis’ life that we already know will be hard enough to whittle down to 2 hours.

There is no shortage of botched biopics, but there is an equally long (if less noticed) history of innovations, alternative approaches and avoidance strategies when it comes to screen biographies.

No one is saying Cheadle shouldn’t shake things up. As much as I would love a “Ray”-like version of the Miles Davis Movie, I am not opposed to seeing the jazz icon’s life presented in more creative structures.

Films about artists are a popular biopic subset — both in the Anthology series and in general — which raises the inevitable question of how to depict the creative process and how to calibrate the relationship between the life and the work.

I have hammered home the point that the biopic should show as much performance footage as possible – on stage and in the studio.

Perhaps this is the most profound pleasure a biopic can offer: the sense of one artist being moved by another.

Shouldn’t be a problem considering the variety of artists Davis crossed paths with throughout his life.


2 thoughts on “The Miles Davis Movie: Which Way Are We Going?”

  1. Shouldn’t you rename this site “”?

    I’ve read enough. I like your other posts, but I’m tired of the movie already!

  2. good point! i have the biopic blog, which is where i try to keep most biopic-related posts. i’ll work on keeping the miles davis movie hubbubb away from the rest of the miles davis action. thanks for the note.

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