I love the Tribeca Film Festival. Even if you get denied press credentials because you missed the deadline (and write for a podunk blog), even if you can’t shell out the bucks for a “Hudson Pass” or a “Spring Pass,” you can still buy cheapo $10 matinee tickets and get to see some good movies. And semi-famous director people like Neil LaBute and Kelly Reichardt show up to do a Q&A after the movie. Sometimes you walk by Minnie Driver or Ed Burns in a movie lobby, or maybe the guy who plays Ray on Girls sits two rows down from you. That’s what a film festival is supposed to be like.
Unfortunately, the film festival that I was attending was not Tribeca, but the New York Film Festival. The New York Film Festival used to be good, but like everything in New York it is less fun and more expensive than it used to be. A year or two ago they still had matinees, you could still get $15 tickets, and they had specials where you got a discount if you bought tickets for three or more movies. Not anymore. Now they hold two screenings of each film: one a big premiere, with $100 tickets, the other a normal screening for us proles, with a ticket price of $25.
So I bought some tickets, not for the illustrious 6:00 premiere in Alice Tully Hall, but for the shabby prole 6:15 screening at the Walter Reade Theater. The movie was Don Cheadle’s directorial debut Miles Ahead. Counter-intuitively premiering on Thelonious Monk’s birthday, it’s a film about Miles Davis.
As I made my way between The David H. Koch Theater and David Geffen Hall (which was still called Avery Fisher Hall as recently as three weeks ago) I kept an eye out for celebrities. Unfortunately a large craft fair had taken over the plaza area, selling their useless “Art Deco lamps” and “lovely hand-crafted jewelry.” Even if Cate Blanchett had been there, I never would have been able to spot her. I took a peak inside the lobby of Alice Tully Hall, which hasn’t yet been renamed The Donald Trump Theater or Bernie Madoff Hall. A crowd of the beautiful people was mingling inside and there was a heavily logoed backdrop for red carpet pictures, but no Ewan McGregor or Don Cheadle was to be found. So I strolled by the VIP entrance and the check-in area for People Who Matter, and trudged past Juilliard to the Walter Reade Theater like a common plebe.
Don Cheadle definitely had his work cut out for him. By making a movie about a musician with emotional issues and drug problems, the veteran actor is entering a very crowded marketplace. In the past year alone there has been Get On Up (2014), about James Brown, Love & Mercy (2014), about Brian Wilson, and Amy (2015), a documentary about Amy Winehouse.
Cheadle solves this problem by taking his inspiration from his subject, and making a movie that is more a series of jazzy riffs than a biopic. There’s a recurring theme about Miles Davis’ lost love, and a bit about Davis getting beaten by The Man. But most of the movie is a shaggy dog story involving a Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor) trying to get an interview, and a fight over a tape (the only copy, of course) of a rare Miles Davis recording session. Cheadle cuts back and forth among the various stories, and manages to play both Kind of Blue-era Miles and ‘lost years’ Miles equally well. Somewhere, though, a lot of the feeling is gone. The tragedy of a world-class musician reduced to a paranoid slob should have more emotional weight than Miles Ahead does. And there’s really no context. It’s understandable that a director would want to avoid churning out another cradle-to-grave portrait crammed with David Copperfield kind of crap, but give the audience something. How did Miles Davis get to where he was? Where did the genius come from? Why did it fade? How do you go from the cool jazz of Birth of the Cool to the bizarro funk fusion of Bitches Brew?
Furthermore, why does Miles Davis have a freaking hashtag on the back of his jacket at the end of the movie? And how come Don Cheadle didn’t show up for a Q&A after the film ended? I pondered these questions as I stumbled out of the theater. Walking up W65th Street, I passed The Juilliard School, where Miles Davis once studied music (this was valuable information I had gleaned from Wikipedia, because it doesn’t get a mention in Miles Ahead.) I fastened the belt on my trench coat and felt a deep longing for next spring’s Tribeca Film Festival. Somewhere a lone trumpeter played a mournful tune on a street corner.