When is a biopic not a biopic? The answer comes in the form of Miles Ahead, staring Don Cheadle as the titular lead Miles Davis. This is also Cheadle’s directorial debut, and he further adds feathers to his already impressive hat with story and screenwriting credits, credits which he shares with Steven Baigelman (Feeling Minnesota), Stephen J. Rivele, and Christopher Wilkinson (both known for penning Ali and Nixon). Here we have both a fictional story that is inspired by the man, as well as the tale of his romance and break-up with his muse Frances Taylor, ably played by Emayatzy Corinealdi (Hand of God). It’s an ambitious project that stylistically and visually plays very much like the music that Davis is so well known for, seeming very free-form, and almost chaotic, but with the knowledge that everything is very deliberate.
The fictitious portion of this offering takes inspiration from the five year hiatus that Davis took in the late 70s, and follows Dave Brill, a stand-out by Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting, Big Fish), a writer for Rolling Stone, as he tries to get an interview with Miles Davis to document his comeback. Brill has heard that there is a session tape with new material on it, and after a rocky start is Davis’ sidekick in a caper to keep the tape out of the hands of Columbia Records. Brill is a fairly sleazy character, which lends even more credit to McGregor as he makes him genuinely likeable, and the relationship he and Davis strike up feels like it’s worth investing your time in, even if the two of them get up to some pretty questionable things. That being said, this half of the movie is the weaker one, with the sleazy record execs, junky “next-big-thing” trumpet players, and car chases through the streets of New York feeling like the fictional story it is. Davis coming back to his music in the end is a nice touch of emotion to this section, but it’s a fairly thin pay-off when you know that Miles Davis performs for years after the window that this caper is set.
It’s actually in the flashbacks that this movie is stronger. Cheadle does a pretty good job showing a man with the world at his feet self-destructing and driving the best thing in his life away. Emayatzy shows a strength to Frances that is very compelling, especially after she gives up everything for the man she loves, showing up his actions as the betrayal of their relationship that they are, even before drugs, womanising, and a degenerative illness with his hip take their toll. Their chemistry is genuine and Cheadle makes for a somewhat tragic character as his own actions and unreasonable demands on the woman he loves write a certain despair on his face.
As a director, this is a fairly impressive debut. During the first half of the film the fades into and out of flashback are inventive, and intriguing, fitting in really well with the soundtrack that almost constantly plays as the movie progresses, giving the feeling of a free-form movie to complement the free-form music it’s telling the story of. Unfortunately this visual flair does not continue right the way through the cinematic piece, and as the car chases and action ramps up, the imagination starts to fade. This really is a shame, as without these visual cues, the music itself starts to be less integrated into proceedings, and a scene with a boxing ring and our protagonists feels cluttered, and smacks of the overindulgence that some feel this form of music suffers from as a whole.
So, should you go see this film? If you are into your Jazz, or as Davis puts it “Social Music”, you’ll probably have a ball. There’s a fair bit happening at most points, and Cheadle does enough that I think he has the makings of a pretty decent director in him. I would say that he’s heaped his plate a bit high with this project, and picking to either star or direct rather than both might have been a better choice. The rest of the cast are pretty strong, and McGregor is, for me, one of the best things about this movie.
If, however, you hate free-form Jazz, you’ll hate this. There’s a couple of scenes of self-congratulation amongst performers that grate somewhat, and show why some folks dismiss this genre of music as being pretentious. The closing credits could possibly push folks of that mindset over the edge. Personally, even though I’m not the biggest fan of this art-form, that scene really does show what a labour of love this was for Don Cheadle, and as a result it really did make me smile.
- some real promise from Cheadle as a director
- strong performances
- bringing #SocialMusic to a new audience
- flair being lost to action as the film progresses
- not calling Jazz “Jazz”, and adding a hashtag to the term Social Music