Wrestling with Miles Davis and His Demons
The New York Times, November 19, 2006
Fifteen years after his death Miles Davis has been enjoying a comeback tour. A new marketing campaign, capitalizing on what would have been his 80th birthday earlier this year, has been touting Davis, the trumpeter, bandleader and jazz legend, as “the original icon of cool.” His music is being repackaged and (of course) remixed. And, as befits a musical giant, his life story — one that has long eluded Hollywood — appears finally to be headed for the big screen.
In the wake of “Ray” and “Walk the Line,” musical biographies that did well in recent awards seasons, filmmakers have lined up to portray Marvin Gaye, Charley Pride, Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan. Now, with a pair of potentially competing projects, it’s Miles Davis’s turn.
The poet and writer Quincy Troupe, who was Davis’s collaborator, friend and protégé, has adapted a screenplay from his 2000 memoir, Miles and Me.
“It’s about a friendship — a hard-won friendship — between two black men, both of them artists,” Mr. Troupe explained. “Through that friendship, the film will explore Miles’s life.”
The producer Rudy Langlais said independent financing for “Miles and Me” is in place through Patriot Pictures and Beacon Pictures, and talks are underway with actors and filmmakers. “We will be up and running next year,” predicted Mr. Langlais, whose credits include “The Hurricane,” about the controversial criminal case involving the boxer Hurricane Carter, and television movies about the Atlanta child murders and the gang leader Stanley Tookie Williams.
“Quincy saw through Miles’s veneer,” Mr. Langlais explained. “You’ll see a film that approaches the inner life of Miles Davis. We’re aiming for the truths of Miles — his fears, his terrors, his demons.”
Meanwhile an “authorized” biopic is being developed by the Davis estate, which comprises some (but not all) of his children, a musician nephew and a brother-in-law. Don Cheadle has been mentioned in reports as a possible star, though a representative for the actor declined to comment. This project — on which Mr. Troupe, who collaborated with Davis on his 1989 autobiography, was previously a consultant — has seen several producers and screenwriters come and go.
Davis has proved a challenging subject, in part because his career spanned almost half a century and diverse musical styles, and was populated by a somewhat incongruous roster of musical greats. The short list includes Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Gil Evans, Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock, as well as Jimi Hendrix and Prince.
The jazz scene has also been problematic for filmmakers, whose forays have often been off-key. Some have delved into the dark, addictive side (as Clint Eastwood did with “Bird,” or Bertrand Tavernier with “ ’Round Midnight”). Others have dwelled on atmosphere (as did Spike Lee, with “Mo’ Better Blues”), sometimes at the expense of story line.
But the most difficult factor may well be Davis himself. The Prince of Darkness, as he became known, ranted so much about race and prejudice that some acquaintances believed he was the one with racial prejudice. (Though, as Mr. Troupe noted, Davis never balked at working with white musicians. And he was romantically involved with several white women.) He often performed with his back to his audience, and berated fans who dared approach him.
Famously fond of cool cars and hot women, Davis had an erratic personal life that included heroin addiction, cocaine addiction, pimping and spousal abuse. “I actually left running for my life — more than once,” his former wife Frances Davis recalled in a telephone interview. A onetime Broadway dancer, she said her own career faltered after she left the hit musical “West Side Story” because Davis told her, “A woman should be with her man.” She now says any screen depiction must be truthful about both his artistry and his rage. “There’s got to be full treatment of his genius, as well as his shortcomings,” she said.
A Davis film, with Wesley Snipes mentioned as the star, was first attempted by the former CBS Records chief executive Walter Yetnikoff, who played a role in encouraging Davis to record his landmark jazz-rock album “Bitches Brew” in 1970. Mr. Yetnikoff acquired the rights to Davis’s life and music, as well as to his autobiography. “But I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” Mr. Yetnikoff said in an interview. “And I didn’t know how to make a movie.”
When he allowed his option to lapse, the producer Marvin Worth (“Lenny,” “Malcolm X”) took the project to Columbia Pictures. But it came to a halt with Mr. Worth’s death in 1998.
Two years later Mr. Troupe published his own book about Davis, and the rights to that book were purchased by Mr. Langlais. For both producer and writer, the project represents the final chapter of a journey that began more than two decades ago, when Mr. Langlais, who was then executive editor of Spin magazine, assigned Mr. Troupe to interview Davis.
Mr. Troupe was 14 in 1954, when he first met Mr. Davis at a downtown St. Louis jazz club. (Mr. Troupe is from St. Louis; Davis is East St. Louis’s most famous homegrown celebrity.) In the late ’70s the two men briefly met again, through a mutual friend, when both were living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
It was 1985, when Mr. Troupe got the assignment for Spin, and he went to Davis’s brownstone, he recalls, “my little tape recorder in my hand.” The meeting got off to a shaky start when Davis asked, “How’d you get your hair like that?” and proceeded to play with one of Mr. Troupe’s dreadlocks. The writer slapped away his hand. “I told him I was there to conduct an interview, not to have my own personal space invaded,” he said. “And Miles, well, he looked pretty shocked.” Davis went on to spew some colorful language before calming down and asking what Mr. Troupe wanted to know.
“And I spent 10 hours with him,” he said. “Then I went back the next day and spent another 10 hours. I told my wife, ‘Something’s happening here.’ ” Mr. Troupe eventually turned in a 45-page article, which Spin printed in two lengthy installments. The next year Mr. Troupe received a call from a representative for Simon & Schuster: Miles Davis wanted him to work with him on his autobiography, extending a relationship that was to last until Davis’s death in 1991, at 65.
As Mr. Troupe sees it now, the angry image that was often associated with Davis actually masked a gentle soul. “Miles Davis was not the monster everybody made him out to be,” he said. “Miles Davis was a very shy guy who created a persona, a kind of hostile persona, to keep people away from him.”
Mr. Troupe has often described Davis as an “unreconstructed black man,” unapologetic and proud. “Miles did not want to smile. He was not going to be Louis Armstrong,” he said. “As far as Miles being racist, the last woman he was with was Jewish.”
That woman was Jo Gelbard, an artist who taught Davis how to paint. They later collaborated (acrylics and mixed media) and became lovers. He was in her arms when he died. Afterward the estate tried to wrest control from her of the paintings that she and Davis had made together. After seven years in court she prevailed. Ms. Gelbard’s relationship with Davis is the subject of a book she is now selling online.
“There was a lot more soul to Miles than has been previously depicted” in other books, Ms. Gelbard said in a telephone interview from New York. Apprehensive about Hollywood’s take, she said, “If they don’t find some light in his life, it will be just another black junkie Harlem-nights movie.”
“Yes, he was complex,” she said. “And I don’t negate the violence.” But, she added, “there should be some forgiveness and insight into him as a human being.
“It’s time to say he was a genius, and thank you for the music.”