Miles Davis – The Substance of Style
by Flash Harry
“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible…”
Oscar Wilde, like Miles Davis, knew a thing or two about substance and style and, as always, the pre-eminent stylist sticks an exquisitely crafted tie pin (with a mother of pearl head nonetheless) through the saggy heart of conventional morality. If we ignore economics for a moment- or maybe not ‘cos the working class have always made Boden attired toffs look like laughable salmon-trousered worshippers at the church of Michael Portillo- style is everything. Style is substance; substance is style. In short: what you see is what you get. So, what does Miles Ahead- Don Cheadle’s ambitious biopic of the splendidly sartorial jazz-man- teach us about style, substance and possibly, America.
Well, quite a lot as it goes.
To begin at the beginning, which ain’t Cheadle’s narrative bag as he riffs back and forth across the decades- we see a Davis in his prime. Cashmere sweaters adorned with a soft minor key of a silk scarf. Penny loafers shockingly juxtaposed with sockless ankles- less is more. Flat fronted trousers as effortless as the opening strains of Blue in green. Wing tipped suit jackets as sharp and tight as a snare drum. This is black America as confidently cutting as a cut-throat razor saying –we ain’t got no rights, you treat us like shit, but boy can we play, boy can we dress. This isn’t about getting even- who wants to do that- this about is about one-upmanship. Hence the eventual middle class appropriation of jazz; after all, how can something so cool, something so beautiful belong to you. Give it back! Stop looking and sounding so successful! But success breeds jealousy and jealousy breeds hate. No more shown than the wrongful arrest of Miles as he leaves a late night club for a smoke before being beaten and thrown in the slammer. How things have changed? His crime? Being too cool, too sharp and being the one who gets the girl. Style here is a weapon. Like the oft quoted line from the movie- if you’re gonna tell a story come with some attitude– style is an attitude of non-compliance, of refusal, of being cooler than you. Like Michael Caine’s mocking of the establishment- I’m the original bourgeois nightmare- a cockney with a million dollars- style is threat.
And so to the 70’s: bulbous, bloated, banal. Miles has seriously lost his mojo, living in splendid isolation in palatial decadence. Furthermore, his lack of musical output is reflected in his faded dress sense- though Cheadle still manages to pull off a certain hip nonchalance in PJ’s and silk peacock coat- Miles is clearly a has been- a comic coda to the musical style genius of old. Even though the Elmore Leonard inspired plot of Miles and Ewen McGregor’s Rolling Stone hack hunting for Miles’ stolen tape syncopates along steadily (ironically the missing tape is discordantly unlistenable) we can’t help feeling a sense of loss, a yearning for the gear and panache of the man who produced the soaring sublimity of Sketches of Spain; for that dress sense.
And that’s the point. This is a story of entropy. Even though the clumsy out-take aims to suggest that Miles, if he were still alive, would have produced further master pieces we don’t buy it. And why, because he’s wearing baggy jeans and a tartan waistcoat adorned with #SocialMusic , while the goonish audience sway around like drunken dads at a wedding reception. A loss of substance mirrored in a loss of a stylish wardrobe. Like America itself, a country considering electing the most style-less man in history (I think you know who I mean) to the highest office in the land.
Like I say, what you see is what you get.
Signing off: Flash Harry
For more celebration of the fashion, culture and style of the British working class and beyond find ‘Flash Harry’ at :
Flash Man Blog: https://mezzomanblog.wordpress.com/