Reading scripts. Absolutely critical to learn the craft of screenwriting. The focus of this weekly series is a deep structural and thematic analysis of each script we read.
Today: A scene-by-scene breakdown of the script for the 2016 movie Miles Ahead, screenplay by Steven Baigelman & Don Cheadle, story by Steven Baigelman & Don Cheadle and Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson
IMDb plot summary: An exploration of the life and music of Miles Davis.
The scene-by-scene breakdown was prepared by Alecia Hodges.
Here is my take on this exercise from a previous series of posts — How To Read A Screenplay:
After a first pass, it's time to crack open the script for a deeper analysis and you can do that by creating a scene-by-scene breakdown. It is precisely what it sounds like: A list of all the scenes in the script accompanied by a brief description of the events that transpire.
For purposes of this exercise, I have a slightly different take on scene. Here I am looking not just for individual scenes per se, but a scene or set of scenes that comprise one event or a continuous piece of action. Admittedly this is subjective and there is no right or wrong, the point is simply to break down the script into a series of parts which you then can use dig into the script's structure and themes.
The value of this exercise:
- We pare down the story to its most constituent parts: Scenes.
- By doing this, we consciously explore the structure of the narrative.
- A scene-by-scene breakdown creates a foundation for even deeper analysis of the story.
You may download a free, legal PDF of the script for Miles Ahead here.
Scene by Scene Breakdown
By Alecia Hodges
Pgs 1–3: Black screen. Next, what seems to be a flashback of a young Miles Davis and the way he should be remembered on stage. Fast forward, stock images on screen that lead to present day Miles having conversation with Dave Braden, journalist — Rolling Stones magazine. Miles playing on stage in Japan and he stops, not knowing what to say. He looks to the crowd, to the wings searching for something or someone. He explains to Dave his music is not jazz but social and gives him pointers for on how to write the story about him. The TV is muted and Miles catches himself on stage surrounded by musicians and frozen in time. Gunshots!
Pg 4: Miles in the passenger seat of his green Jaguar, Dave is driving. "Agartha" on full blast. Dave seems to have lost a fight. Black eye and busted lip. They're being pursued through lower Manhattan. More gunshots. All they can do is swear and duck for cover. Dave can't control the Jag, it skids toward a wall. A bullet pierces the Jag and into Miles' thigh. The car screeches to a halt. Dave can't start it. Walter is out of the other car gunning for them. Miles grabs a briefcase while shooting at the other car. He drops the briefcase and sheet music is blowing in the wind. A reel labeled 7–9–78 rolls out.
Pgs 5–6: Miles at home. Headphones on. Next to him a REEL TO REEL tape machine that pushes out unheard music. The label reads: 7–9–78. Miles is writing. A memory of a church. A glimpse of a well decorated home with animal skins and leather. Stock footage of "The Fight of The Century" displays on a silent tv. Noise outside. The kettle whistling, knocking on the door, phone ringing, the pain in his thigh. So many distractions. Writing session over.
Pgs 7–9: Frances Taylor, the woman he loves. He watches her walk upstairs. In the kitchen, it seems like Miles has blocked everything out and focuses on a cup of green tea and a cigarette. Miles still ignores the constant knocking on the door until it stops. Dave, is now tapping on the window and the phone is still ringing. He finally answers the phone. Kingston wants his money for the cocaine. Miles doesn't appreciate what Phil Schaap said on the radio out "coming back" so he calls the radio station to check Phil during the Miles Davis marathon.
Pgs 10–12: Dave stopped knocking but he's back. Miles continues to ignore him and starts painting. The mail arrives, what he's looking for isn't there. Dave decides to try to talk through the mail slot. Miles calls George Butler to find out where the check is.George reminds him he hasn't given him a session tape. Miles is tired of hearing about a "comeback", he didn't go anywhere.
Dave is still knocking. Highly irritated, he opens the front door, chain still attached. Dave has fresh bruises. "Dave's wearing some kind of story that he's in the middle of."
Pg 12: After introducing himself, he says he's there to write Miles' comeback story. Unfortunately, that wasn't the correct approach. Miles takes the choin off the door,opens it and punches him in the face. Comeback story.
Pgs 13–15: After fending Miles off, the tables have turned and now Dave is inside the house and Miles is outside and barefoot. He takes a look around the house and takes a few photos and pulls out a tape recorder and presses "record". Miles is furious on the other side of the door. Finally, Dave opens the door and Miles rushes in and heads straight for a drawer and pulls out his .38 special. Dave terrified, tells him he's a reporter sent by Columbia to write his story. Dave is behind the wheel, Miles in the passenger seat of his Jaguar. Janice and Dieter pull up but Miles and Dave don't see them as they drive off.
Pgs 16–22: Dave asks Miles for some background info for the story. Miles gives him a brief rundown knowing that as a reporter, Dave will write what he wants anyway. They pull up to Columbia Records. Dave wants to stay in the car. Miles isn't having it. Photos of Miles and George align the office walls. He storms into George's office and tells him not to send reporters to his house. George tells Miles he doesn't know Dave. All eyes on Dave. He tells them he's from Rolling Stone Magazine. George wants this verified. Dave is caught. Miles wants to get paid. Ken Schwinn attempts to diffuse the situation by reminding Miles that the label owns his music. Miles shoots a lamp near his head to remind him and takes Ken's money clip. Harper Hamilton, impressed by Mr. Davis introduces Junior, also a trumpet player and his new label mate. Miles looks to George. Judas. Harper offers Miles tickets to an upcoming fight. Dave's tape recorder clicks off. Miles isn't playing. Dave hands the recorder to Miles and he throws it in the trash and leaves Dave in the office. George listens to Dave as he tries to make a deal to get the session recording as he's being escorted out.
Pgs 23–25: Miles in the elevator being reminded of his music and thinking of Frances. Flashback to LA 1957. He's on stage with the band. That night he and Buddy are in the car with Nora and Ava. Buddy pulls over to drop off a gift for a friend. Miles meets Frances for the first time. Writes his number on a $ 20 and gives it to her. Back in NYC he's watching Frances dance rehearsal. His eyes move from Frances to the piano keys. He notices a couple white men (financiers/producers) staring at Frances and the jealousy begins to rise. The feelings of wanting to posses her surprise him.
Pgs 26–30: Dave falls down the stairs as he chases after Miles. He catches up to him and offers to drive. Miles gets in and closes the door but Dave tries to talk to him through the rolled up window. The car won't start. Dave is pleading his case. The engine turns over and Dave jumps in front of the car. He notices Miles is in pain and pretends to care so he offers to help him get right. Dave is driving and they're headed to Columbia University. Dave knows a kid that sells drugs. It takes Justin a minute to realize MIles Davis uses cocaine
Pgs 31–35: Miles taps his pocket to remind Dave he has a gun if he tries anything. Justin is in awe of Miles shows him the records he owns and calls him "Mr. Davis". Justin seems to hate Dave and would prefer to deal with Miles directly. Dave is shady and still trying to get into Miles good graces so he convinces Justin to give them a discount in exchange for Miles autograph on a few records. Miles reminisces as he looks over Justin's record collection. The autograph will be worth more than the dope one day. Miles pays for the drugs with Ken's money and tells Justin to keep the money clip.
Pgs 35–37: Miles and Frances are in a dilapidated church. Flamenco Sketches is playing. Frances dancing to the center aisle and now the room is transformed and a stairway is at the center leading to heaven. The stairs lead to the bedroom where they make love. Miles is deeply in love with Frances. They talk but her voice soon fades and he is inspired to create and heads to his studio.
Pgs 37–41: Dave pulls up to the house. Miles hands him the key to the Jag and tells him to fill it up and bring back some catfish. Dave will bear it until he can get those tapes. Music is coming from the house. Miles walks in on a party in full swing. People everywhere. Black, White, musicians, drug addicts. Dave is waiting for Miles to go off. Janice reminds him he told her she could throw a party. Miles makes his way to the reel to reel machine and locks tape in a drawer underneath and heads to his studio. Dave offers to stay upstairs to keep an eye on the party and get the tape. Miles tells him to come into the studio. Harper, Junior and Walter walk in.
Pgs 42–43: Grammy's on a shelf, gold and platinum records, photos of Miles with Sugar Ray, Jack Johnson and Joe Louis on the wall. Dave is impressed with the studio. Miles grabs the record with Frances on the cover and pours out the coke. Miles offers Dave a rail, he refuses then helped himself. He has to get out of the basement to get the tape. He pretends he needs a drink. Miles offers him a Heineken. He wants one from the party. Miles hands him "The Keys to the Kingdom" and tells him to lock the door and bring him a drink.
Pgs 44–46: Dave is proud of himself. As he prepares to steal the tape he hears "Rolling Stone". He drops the tape back into the drawer and closes it but the drawer doesn't close all the way. It's Harper and Junior. Harper is looking for Miles and Dave tells him he has no idea where he is. Dave blends into the crowd and returns to the studio. Harper looks down at the drawer and realizes what Dave was up to.
Pgs 47–49: Dave is back in the basement and Miles playing Chopin and composing. Dave didn't know Miles played the piano. Miles checks Dave for not bringing glasses to drink out of with the liquor. Dave happily agrees to go back upstairs but Miles takes it from him. Miles tells Dave Frances loves Chopin and that he studied Chopin, Stravinsky and Bartok and how he appreciated them for being unconventional. He told him how Bird and Dizzy Gillespie played on the fly and how it terrified him. "You have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself." It's Dave's turn now. What's his story? How did he get that black eye?
Pgs 49–51: Earlier that day, Dave was arguing with someone. He gets sucker-punched by Ralph, his wife's boyfriend. The alimony payment was due. Dave still loves her. Miles invites him to the heavy bag to throw some punches and gives him some pointers.
Pgs 51–55: Flashback. Miles is in a recording studio in Midtown. Miles calls Frances in London but she doesn't answer. He cusses at the receptionist. Still in the studio, he feels like the timing is off so he rearranges the musicians. Later that night, Miles is at home and the phone rings. It's Frances, she tells him about the time difference and that her performance was extended. He's in bed with the women from the studio earlier and tells her to come home. He decides not is a good time to revisit the marriage conversation. Miles tells her he's sending a plane for her and she agrees to come home.
Pgs 56–59: Miles realizes his music has been stolen. Dave tells him Harper, Junior and Walter were there last night. Miles is furious! He calls the Columbia but it's a holiday, Yom Kippur. Dave reminds Miles that Junior is playing at Village Vanguard. Miles gives Dave proper clothes to wear instead of the boring plain corduroys and shirt he's been wearing. They're at the club during rehearsal and Miles' fury is tempered for a moment when he hears the trumpet player. Junior is the anchor and his greatness is on full display as the band has fun rehearsing.
Pgs 59–62: Miles is onstage with the band and Frances is in the audience. Another great performance. The audience cheers. We meet Erica and she asks Miles to escort her to a cab. He looks to Frances as he walks her out. Erica is swooning over Miles and he's allowing it while not returning the adorations. Miles hails a cab. A white beat cop is watching and this makes he doesn't like what he sees. Frances goes back into the club. A white man in a suit is watching. Miles pays the driver and after the car pulls off the cop tells him he can't loiter. Miles tell him he works in the club and he can stand on public property and smoke. After an exchange of words and the cop attempts to grab Miles, the man in the suit hits Miles in the back of the head with a nightstick. He's a plainclothes cop. A crowd gathers and Miles is arrested.
Pgs 62–64: People and reporters gather outside the courthouse. Miles is thinking about what happened and he hears Frances, livid. His lawyer, Harold is there. Later, Miles is at home in the tub and Frances joins him. Chopin fills the house. He asks her to stop dancing, he knows it's a sacrifice but she's his wife now. She will stop dancing when he stops playing. Frances gets out of the tub.
Pgs 64–67: Back at the Village Vanguard, Junior sees Miles and as if he's coming over to talk he runs. Miles knows he can't catch him so he hold out the gun to Dave. Dave refuses, Miles insists. They chase Junior. When Junior realizes Dave isn't going to shoot him he punches him the jaw. Dave drops the gun. After a few more punches Junior is standing over Dave with the gun. Miles presses his mouthpiece into the back of Junior's head, convinced it's a gun he stops. Junior tries to tell Miles Dave was trying to steal the tape but Dave interrupts. MIles gives Junior a few tips as they exit the club in search of his tape.
Pgs 67–71: They pull up to a tenement building. Junior's apartment has been trashed. This apartment is familiar. A memory of a place from the past. Walter has been there and tore the place up looking for the tape. Cheryl, Junior and Irene's two-year old is crying as Irene tries to comfort her. Miles tells Junior to call Harper and take them to him. Junior pawns his trumpet for drugs on the way. Junior is on the phone with Harper. Junior in the car relieved now that he's gotten high. Dave thinks they should say something. Flashback of a younger Miles snorting cocaine.
Pgs 72–75: Moments later, back in Miles' house. Frances is looking at swatches and the younger band players are in the studio with Miles. Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on double bass, Tony Williams on drums, and Wayne Shorter on tenor sax. Frances is yelling at a woman who has called for Miles. He tells the band to continue while he goes upstairs. He tells her she has nothing to worry about and not to answer the phone. This infuriates Frances. She reminds him of everything she gave up to be with him and he hasn't given up anything. She slaps him and he slaps her! Both of them go down swinging and fall over a table.
Pgs 76–77: Frances stands over Miles, he's in pain. She doesn't offer help. The hip. He finally stands and a ashtray flies by his head. Back in the studio he blows fire into his trumpet after seeing Frances on the cover of the "Someday My Prince Will Come" gold album. The next day Frances wakes to gifts surrounding her in bed. She's cold, doesn't care about the gifts. Peace offerings. He hides behind the wall watching. When she looks up, he sees the black eye and it's unnerving. He asks if she wants to go to dinner and dancing. It's like a dagger to the heart. She gave up dancing for him.
Pgs 77–80: Miles and Dave stand off to the side when they arrive at Harper's office. Junior presses the buzzer. He's buzzed in and feels like a dead man walking. Either Harper will kill him for bringing them to his office or Miles was going to kill him for not bringing them. Miles' tape is in the valise behind Harper's desk. The Miles Davis marathon is still going. Walter isn't quick enough, Miles has a gun pointed to his head. Junior tries to plead his case. Dave goes for Walter's gun per Miles instruction. Harper calls Dave out and Miles notices this is the second time this has happened. Dave tries to clean it up. As they back out of the room, Junior tries to follow. Harper gives Walter another gun and tells him to go after them.
Pgs 81–83: "Go Ahead John" plays in the background. Dave is nervous and wants to know if Miles caught on to what is going on here. Miles understands alright and demands his keys from Dave, but he tries to explain that he didn't want the tape just the story. L-i-e. The clink of a glass bottle, Walter is coming. Dave runs to the car. Miles, walking backwards pops off a shot, Walter ducks. Dave can't get the car started. "Go Ahead John" builds. Opening scene shootout. Miles is yelling instructions. Staff paper flying. Bullets flying. Dave loses control.
Pgs 84–85: Miles trips and staff paper is flying and the tape rolls out. All out that work. Dave grabs Miles as he struggles to break free. Miles can't leave it. His work it means something to him Dave doesn't understand. Dave doesn't want to get killed. Miles wants what belongs to him. In a final attempt, throws his gun at Walter. Sirens in the distance, Walter gets in his car and peels off. The men are back in the car and Miles follows Walter. Dave doesn't understand why he won't just make more music. He is Miles Davis. Miles remembers the fight tickets for the Cathedral Harper gave him earlier and heads there.
Pgs 86–87: Footage of the hip operation. He's home and popping painkillers. He's so angry he could kill somebody. He turns the volume down on the tv. He hears laughter, a man and a woman. He yells for Frances. No answer. Miles gets out of the car in the alley behind the Cathedral. Dave can't believe something is worth all of this. Miles moves through the crowd as people start to recognize him. He walks straight up to doorman and points at his face as the only ticket he needs. We hear "So What" '64 (Miles in Berlin). A boxing ring in the center. People everywhere. He sees Harper and Junior.
Pg 88: Back in his home as above. Frances is in the bathroom putting on makeup while Miles searches for the laughing man. He grabs her arm. She knows what comes next. We hear "So What" '64. Frances yells for him to let her go but he has to find the man. Frances tries to explain no one is there. He's lost it. He grabs a butcher knife and tries to focuses on the laughter.
Pgs 89–90: Back at the Cathedral, Miles is headed in Harper's direction. Junior is wedged between Harper and Walter and he looks sick to his stomach as he listens to their conversation. Walter has the valise and they debate whether or not they'll ever see Miles again. Back in his house. He demands Frances to tell him where the man is. She has to get out of there and tells him the man is in the basement. He tries to take her with him but she may not come back up if she goes down so she tells him the man threatened to kill her. Now, he wants to protect her and tells her to stay upstairs. Frances runs!
Pgs 91–92: Harper is telling Walter to put the tape in the safe and stops mid-sentence. He sees Miles laser-focused and coming his way. Junior can't believe what he's seeing. Walter reaches for his gun. The boxers going at it in the ring. Dave yells after Miles. Harper dives onto Miles and they tumble down the stairs. Miles reaches for his empty gun but Junior sucker-punches him and Walter shoots Harper. Miles yells to Junior to grab the tape. The crowd in a frenzy. In a moment '79 Miles and '64 Miles pass each other running in opposite directions. '64 Miles is running after Frances. Back at home Frances runs out into the night. Gone. "So What '64" is over.
Pgs 93–95: Miles, Dave and Junior jump in the car and Dave peels off. Miles is silent in the back seat they don't realize what's happened to him. Miles stares into the distance and we hear him off-screen talking to Frances. He tells her he'll find her and she tells him she's not coming back. He threatens to kill himself. She knows he loves her but she can't come back. Dial tone. They search for supplies to clean Miles' wound. Miles spools the tape player and Junior and Dave wait to hear something great. The reason all of them almost got killed. They wait. All they hear is conversations and false starts.
Pgs 95–99: They want to know when Miles comes in and he informs them he's already playing. He's on the organ. Junior sighs deeply, crushed and looks to his idol with pity. Dave is speechless. Miles hears it and open his case. Dave is ready for the big comeback moment but Junior doesn't care it's over. Miles takes a deep breath and blows. Nothing comes out. He tries again. Nothing. Junior tries to comfort him by telling him the sound will come back after while. Miles lays down his horn and return the balloon of coke he took fro Junior earlier. Dave doesn't understand what's happening. After all he went through Dave is getting a story he snaps a few photos. Dave is so angry. Suddenly they hear Junior on Miles' horn then he goes to the piano. Miles joins him and they work it out together. Dave grabs a pencil and starts writing. Eventually Junior and Dave fade away and Miles is working on his own.
Pgs 100–101: Dave is interviewing Miles he rises and walks away Dave calls out to Miles. He isn't coming back. We see Miles on stage with a couple youngsters Gary Clark, Jr, Esperanza Spalding and some old friends Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. Miles looks better than ever and the band is in sync following each other and flowing. Credits roll.
Themes I noticed: Miles' music is a theme throughout the script, nostalgia, pain, deep love for music and the time he spent creating, his love for Frances and her love for him, sacrifice (Frances gave up something she loved to be with him), drugs, manipulation (Dave's attempts to get the story and Justin), abuse (physical by Miles against Frances and the police against Miles), ownership (music), seeing Miles as an idol, redemption.
Writing Exercise: I encourage you to read the script, but short of that, if you've seen the movie, go through this scene-by-scene breakdown. What stands out to you about it from a structural standpoint? Click on RESPONSE and let us hear your thoughts.
If you'd like to download a PDF of the scene-by-scene breakdown of Miles Ahead, click here.
Major kudos to Alecia Hodges for doing today's breakdown.
For those folks who volunteer to write a scene-by-scene breakdown, beyond your name being noted here, my thanks, and your own personal dose of creative juju, you will learn something about story structure and further develop this important skill set.
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La La Land / Priya Gopal
Loving / Liz Correal
Maggie's Plan / Monique Mata
Manchester by the Sea / Ashley Lara
Miles Ahead / Alecia Hodges
Moonlight / Ryan Canty
My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 / Nikki Leydecker
The Secret Life of Pets / Paul Huffman
Victor Frankenstein / Lisa Gomez
Zootopia / Will King
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Script Analysis: "Miles Ahead" — Scene By Scene Breakdown was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.