By Leonard Klady

Review: Miles from Home and I Saw the Light

Film biographies date to the dawn of cinema with the lives of politicians, entertainers and sports players providing a treasure trove of drama and entertainment. We know that many bygone favorites printed the legend and skirted over or ignored the subject’s flaws. It didn’t seem to matter to the audiences that flocked to The Pride of the Yankees or The Jolson Story but today’s moviegoer is not as forgiving about blurred lines.

Last year’s Steve Jobs upended conventions of presenting a character’s life in a triptych that took three key career events meant to reflect the subject’s struggle to evolve, even if his character obstinacy was evident. While that experiment is more anomaly than trend, it suggests a willingness by filmmakers to strive for new narrative shapes.

Country singer-songwriter Hank Williams is the focus of I Saw the Light while jazz icon Miles Davis gets the spotlight in Miles Ahead. There are few parallels to make between the two icons, and that extends to the approaches taken by their respective filmmakers.

I Saw the Light is the less successful of the two, and not simply because it takes the familiar arc of the singer’s rise and fall. Williams’ brief but meteoric career began in post-Second World War Arkansas roadhouses and ended in the back seat of a car on New Year’s Day 1953. But he managed to write great songs like “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Why Don’t You Love Me” and “Move It On Over” that truly influenced the subsequent country music.

The true Hank Williams was a loathsome sort prone to violent outbursts, abusive, an abject alcoholic and inveterate womanizer. Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta comes to mind, but writer-director Marc Abraham doesn’t have the chops or ferocity of Scorsese or Schrader. He’s a reasonably skilled filmmaker abetted by the cinematography by Dante Spinotti (a Michael Mann and Curtis Hanson regular), its lush imagery hampered by a script that adopts a measured pace whenever Williams is away from the microphone.

The film skirts around the issues that might have provided clarity and a modicum of sympathy for Williams. His relationship with his wife and manager Audrey who had an inflated sense of her singing abilities comes perilously close to a spat between the 1950s contemporaneous Ricardos. Far worse is the script’s tamping down of his debilitating spinal ailments that spurred on his abuse of alcohol and drugs.

The incandescent Elizabeth Olsen skillfully gives Audrey substance in a woefully underwritten role. Tom Hiddleston is less successful as Williams. He doesn’t appear at all comfortable in the singer’s skin despite the fact that he chose to do the actual singing rather than employing recordings. One’s fondness for I Walk the Line grows.

Miles Ahead takes the unconventional conceit of distilling the essence of Miles Davis to a couple of days in 1979 when he was tinkering with his first album in five years. Don Cheadle who plays Davis and also directed, co-wrote and provided some original music tosses in a reporter (Ewan McGregor) doing a Rolling Stone profile and the theft of a preliminary session tape by a unsavory producer (Michael Stuhlbarg) to provide the profile with momentum.

The gist of the story is like a jazz riff and it’s not difficult to go in the myriad directions in which the film proceeds. Chiefly that involves turning the clock back more than a decade to when Davis was evolving into a musical force and his budding relationship with Francis (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a dancer, who becomes his first wife.

What’s up on screen is nervy and engrossing. Cheadle knows his subject and embodies the 1970s Davis with raspy voice, aggressive and profane attitude and peacock wardrobe organically. Like Williams, he was hobbled by a bad hip, over-indulged in coke and booze and was not unknown to violent extremes. (I’d see him on occasion walking in Greenwich Village in the 1970s giving a vibe that was foreboding.) All of that is on display, but muted and contextualized with humor, humanity and a penchant for the bizarre.

The film has a rigorous pace and ramps up to a rock-‘n-roll road trip in pursuit of the purloined tapes. The look is purposely on the crude side; emulating the feel of captured on the fly documentary, a true sleight of hand for a piece rife with inventions.

Objectively one misses space to see Davis in his prime. And there’s a tendency toward caricature or plot device among the supporting cast. It also doesn’t help the more one is familiar with the actual biography of Davis or for that matter Williams. Still, Miles Ahead has plucky audacity that’s disarming with sufficient veracity to embrace the embellishments.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon