August 13th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Rating the ratings agencies: FFF and "Watch out"

CANBERRA OBSERVED Despite bumbling, youth detention inquiry is needed

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Erdogan's political coup will transform Turkey

SEXUAL POLITICS Transgender Olympians: what about the AFL?

EDITORIAL Marriage plebiscite: why not a referendum?

SEXUAL POLITICS Gay lobby grasps at normal and natural

MILITARY HISTORY The Western Front, 1916: our costliest theatre of war

MILITARY HISTORY Delville Wood, 1916: South Africa's Gallipoli

EUTHANASIA Disability hate crime: then the rest is silence

BRITISH POLITICS Tories push trans agenda hard in schools, prisons

TAIWANESE HISTORY AND POLITICS Fractious party puts Tsai in a pickle

MUSIC Davis biopic sadly miles off the mark

CINEMA Bourne again, but still lost: Jason Bourne

BOOK REVIEW An empire built on suffering

BOOK REVIEW Freedom of speech


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Davis biopic sadly miles off the mark

by David James

News Weekly, August 13, 2016

Miles Ahead, the recently released film based on the life of Miles Davis, was very far from a filmic success. But it suggested some interesting questions. The film concentrated heavily on the troubled relationship between Miles and his wife Frances, his infidelities, his drug habit and the chaos of his life.

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in the film Miles Ahead.

So here are the questions.

First, how many African-Americans males have trouble with their relationships, a drug habit and a chaotic, uncontrolled life? Answer: many, probably numbering in the millions.

Second question. How many African-American males played the trumpet in a radically new way and devised at least three different aesthetics of jazz music? Answer: one. Miles Davis.

Third question. What is interesting about the life of Miles Davis? Answer: certainly not the fact that he used drugs, was unfaithful and had a failed marriage. Yet that is what the film (completely unsurprisingly) focused on.

It is, unfortunately, the obsession of our time, and not just in music. Art is all too often seen as an extension of the life of the artist. Accordingly, we believe that, when seeking to understand the art, we should start and finish with the artist. It is art as a mix of biography and self-expression.

Sometimes, the approach can be justified, at least to a point. We learn something about the poetry of French symbolist poet Rimbaud, for instance, by informing ourselves about his life as a libertine. The life of the American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath teaches us something about her often tortured writing.

But just as often the approach is a blind alley. The poet T.S. Eliot commented that when critics tried to correlate details of his personal life with his works, they almost always got it exactly back to front. Material that they believed was drawn from his personal life had not been, and material they thought was invented was often drawn from his experiences.

One reason for the “artist as expresser of his personal experiences in biographical form” obsession is that it neatly fits with the culture of celebrity. Seeking to understand the subtleties of an art form is hard work. Interpreting art as an extension of the creator’s personal life is easy. It is akin to gossip, and it has a similar familiarisation effect, bringing the artist down to our level.

One can almost imagine the chat: “Oh, that Miles Davis! Sure, he was a very nice trumpeter but he treated his wife really, really badly and, as for all those women and drugs … If he was my next door neighbour I would have given him a piece of my mind, I would.”

This biographical bias has become so absorbed into contemporary culture and the business of music that it is part of the business of creating a career and marketing. The story of the artist now must be as compelling as the music.

In some instances, competitors in television talent shows are told: “Yes, you are very talented, but your life story isn’t interesting enough. Sorry.”

Often, public relations consultants for musicians or actors deliberately make stories up to create gossip, then release statements complaining about the lies being told in the media about their clients’ personal lives. It is all part of the theatre, or, more accurately, the business.

At one level it probably doesn’t matter. People are still able to enjoy the music or other type of art for what it is, even if they are also titillated by the gossip. What really impressed in the film Miles Ahead was the soundtrack, which was mainly excerpts from Miles’ early electric period. There were also some glimpses in the script of Miles’ genuinely profound insights into music and the life of jazz, although they were all too brief.

What is lost, though, is the sense that artists create worlds using their imagination. These worlds are neither real nor extensions of their private lives, especially with the very greatest artists. Indeed, that is the point.

Shakespeare, one of the most invisible of artists precisely because his imagination was so potent, put it this way:

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

That is what is lost when we turn the understanding of art and artists into little more than gossip.

David James is a Melbourne journalist and musician.

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