How bizarre is this? Two movies opening on the same day are biographies of iconic black jazz musicians who came to prominence in the 1950s, faced racism squarely, became addicted to alcohol and drugs, went into self-induced exile – Nina Simone from America, Miles Davis from music itself – and had late-career renaissances.
Both come from first-time directors. Both narratives jump around in time and rely on a similar story: A caretaker jolts the title character out of torpor and into productivity, fighting the star’s self-destructive personality. Both show why these musicians were feared and revered. If “Miles Ahead” works better than “Nina,” it’s because we get a better sense of him off the bandstand.
Don Cheadle dominates “Miles Ahead”: He directed, co-wrote, co-produced and composed some of the music, as well as playing the notoriously reclusive and angry trumpeter.
He has the gravelly voice, perennial touch of contempt and thousand-mile stare down, as he tries to reclaim a lost recording from a sleazy producer (Michael Stuhlbarg). Davis gets help from a would-be Rolling Stone writer (Ewan McGregor), who sees the lost tape as his own chance for fame.
Cheadle and co-writer Steven Baigelman put us inside Miles’ swirling head as he contemplates his former muse and wife (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and the glory days when his albums ruled the jazz charts. Miles sometimes speaks to a character in one time and place, then turns 90 degrees to step into another era; that’s distracting at first, but we come to believe he’s living in various decades at once in his head.
We see him mostly in 1980, at the end of a five-year silence (“I didn’t have nothin’ to say”), wondering whether he’ll ever contribute anything worthwhile again. The movie overrates his popularity at the time – he’s recognized everywhere in New York, despite long inactivity – but not his importance to jazz as a co-inventor of forms he later repudiated.
“Nina” opens with an act of defiance: The middle schooler from Tryon, N.C., refuses to play at a recital, unless her parents can sit up front in the segregated hall. It ends with a triumphant concert in Central Park, where all races cheer her enthusiastically.
But most of it takes place in the last decade of her life. After a stay in a mental hospital, she convinces her nurse (David Oyelowo, trying valiantly in an underwritten role) to become her caretaker, then her manager. He coaxes her away from pitfalls and onto the stage for a final few years.
Zoe Saldana stirred up controversy by taking the title role, because she darkened her skin with makeup to play the part. She’s also absurdly young, a woman who’s 37 (and looks it) playing someone who spends most of the movie in her 60s.
That said, she acts with the right fire and sings beautifully and evocatively. During a long, uncut performance of “Wild Is the Wind,” one of Simone’s signature songs, we suddenly see why jazz fans swooned at her feet.
P.S. Former Charlottean Linwood Sawyer tells a different story about Davis’ five-year “absence.” He says Davis blew off a Miami concert sponsored by Wombat Productions. (One of Wombat’s principals was Sawyer’s ex-wife.) When Wombat successfully sued Davis for breach of contract and damages in 1975, he refused to pay; Wombat attached future record royalties and had him blacklisted by the American Auditorium Managers Association. On Oct. 21, 1980, Davis settled for the full amount.
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michael Stuhlbarg.
Director: Don Cheadle.
Length: 100 minutes.
Rating: R (strong language throughout, drug use, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence).
☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Zoe Saldana, David Oyelowo.
Writer-Director: Cynthia Mort.
Length: 90 minutes.
Rating: Not rated (profanity, drug use).