Film review: Miles Ahead

David Gritten / 21 April 2016

Saga film critic David Gritten applauds Don Cheadle’s sheer nerve in making a film about the life of jazz virtuoso Miles Davis – even if it’s far from perfect.

You have to hand it to Don Cheadle. He’s directed, co-written and stars in a film about the life of his hero, the incomparable jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. And from the word go, he’s clearly decided that a routine ‘biopic’ could not do justice to this wayward, tempestuous, flawed, enigmatic man. Laudably, then, Miles Ahead (the film shares its title with one of Davis’s finest albums) is in no way routine.

That means it doesn’t have a neatly resolved, upbeat ending. Nor does it take the cod-psychology option, zeroing in on one defining moment in Davis’s life that allegedly explains him and drives him. And lastly, this ‘passion project’ of Cheadle’s doesn’t flinch from examining Miles Davis’s many and varied human failings; indeed, it confronts them directly.

It’s a brave approach, then, and all praise to Cheadle for adopting it. It doesn’t surprise me one bit: he’s almost always an arresting presence on film, and I’ll show my hand here – he’s one of my favourite actors. (Check out his remarkable Oscar-nominated turn in Hotel Rwanda from 2004, and you’ll get the idea.) But while his audacious approach to capturing the complex essence of Miles Davis on screen may earn our respect, I’m not sure it always works.

Purely in terms of acting, Cheadle is riveting. He distills the presence of Miles Davis as we think of him – the hair, the haughty stare, the staccato, gravelly-voiced speaking style. And I suspect what he’s tried to do here is to find a cinematic equivalent for Davis’s own music – and so the film veers off startlingly into improvised riffs, discarding conventional story-telling structures.

That’s fine in itself, but it needs a narrative thread of sorts – and in Miles Ahead, the character assigned this responsibility is not Davis himself, but one Dave Braden, a fictional reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, played by Ewan McGregor. Braden, who will stop at nothing to secure an interview with Davis, fast-talks his way into the musician’s New York apartment – at which point Davis decides to enlist Braden as his partner-in-mischief.

The two men then work together to reclaim some of Davis’s master tapes, stolen by an unscrupulous music biz type (Michael Stuhlbarg). Dave sneaks Miles on to a college campus to obtain drugs. And implausibly, they become involved in car chases and shootouts on Manhattan’s streets.

It’s unclear how much of this we’re supposed to take literally, or even seriously. But the device of using a questioning reporter to introduce the audience to another person’s story is starting to feel tired and overused.

Curiously, given all the periods of Davis’s life Cheadle could have decided to focus on, the film is set in the late 1970s, when Davis, now turned 50, retired from performing and recording for five years, and was perceived in some quarters to be washed up. Miles Ahead  examines in flashback his courtship, marriage and separation from his first wife, dancer Frances Taylor (an exquisite performance by Emayatzy Corinealdi.) Other sequences underline that Davis was also the victim of police brutality and discrimination.

It isn’t a film with many happy moments, then, and its jagged, harsh style might find more favour with those who admired Davis’s radical improvisations and abrupt musical detours, rather than those fans who prefer his more lyrical works, such as the albums Sketches of Spain and Kind of Blue – even though both are featured on the soundtrack.

I admire Cheadle for not taking the easy way out in devising a film about an undeniably great musician. I’m pleased to have seen Miles Ahead, certainly rather than some routine run-through of Davis’s life. But if Cheadle was hoping to attract a broad audience, he’s set himself an uphill task.

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