DIRECTOR: Don Cheadle
CAST: Don Cheadle, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Ewan McGregor, Michael Stuhlbarg, Keith Stanfield, Austin Lyon, Jeffrey Grover, Joshua Jessen, Theron Brown, JT Thigpen, David Kettlehake, Derek Snow, Jon McHale, Morgan Wolk
RUNNING TIME: 100 mins
BASICALLY…: Reclusive jazz player Miles Davis (Cheadle) is approached by a Rolling Stone journalist (McGregor), springing into motion a series of fantastical events that lead to Davis reflecting on his life…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Don Cheadle has been championing for a film about renowned jazz musician Miles Davis for at least a decade, and at last his passion project – in which he not only stars but also co-wrote with Steven Baigelman and more significantly makes his feature directorial debut – sees the light of day in the form of Miles Ahead, a not-so-straightforward biopic that takes the very basic understanding of the man himself and uses it to craft a film that’s part-biographical, part-fictional caper, all just as barmy and riddled with eccentricity as the man himself.
Starting off with a frantic documentary-style framing device wherein Cheadle’s Davis is being interviewed by off-screen Rolling Stone reporter Dave Barden (Ewan McGregor), the film quickly shifts into the world of fiction once Davis criticises Barden’s formal delivery in his questions and wants him to “come at it with some attitude”. After this shift, we find Davis in his reclusive period during the mid-70s (which the film oddly never details as to why this is) being harassed at his home by Dave, who claims to have been sent by Davis’ record label to write a comeback story for Rolling Stone. This springs into action a series of misadventures for Davis, including the theft and attempted recovery of a stolen demo tape, which on more than one occasion cause him to flashback to several points in his early career, particularly his troubled relationship with first wife Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi).
While you can definitely sense the passion that Cheadle brings to his subject, in both performance and direction, the film itself is wildly unbalanced and does not find a cohesive structure to form a complete movie. The closest this movie gets to feeling more like, well, a movie, is the section that is unquestionably fictional, a rather ironic statement for a biopic,; as we follow Miles and Dave on their Lethal Weapon-like mini-odyssey from shooting up record labels to scoring drugs from a lowlife dealer to the eventual main situation of the stolen demo tape, the film starts to settle more into a conventional but still accessible template, but one that breathes life into the film and makes it more entertaining for the audience. It features many tropes of the traditional narrative, even a villainous mastermind who here is represented by a sleazy record producer played by Michael Stuhlbarg, but the fact that these fictional events are happening to a very-not-fictional figure make the film out to be an interesting sacrifice of standard biopic tropes to create a story that honours the person and their increasingly erratic way of looking at the world.
However, when the film does tend to let itself fall back into those biopic tropes it so desperately wants to avoid, particularly in those flashbacks, that’s when the momentum easily becomes lost. As with the rest of the film, Cheadle shows real flare in his direction during these sections, but ultimately they take perhaps the least interesting parts about Miles Davis – his core relationship with Frances Taylor, which slowly becomes more frantic and more controlling over time – and try to make that the only thing he was really known for, instead of the numerous musical accomplishments that he was ACTUALLY really known for. Outside of a dramatization of Miles’ infamous arrest by the racist NYPD in 1959, nothing else of his career and life is really explored, and what it does set out to explore with the relationship is about as standard and right out of a traditional Lifetime biopic as you can get (structurally, anyway), which doesn’t add up to a very focused portrayal of the man that Cheadle himself spent years trying to make.
It will likely most appeal to hardcore appreciators of Davis’ work and legacy, while baffling and sometimes alienating other audiences who want to find a more cohesive and balanced movie to watch on a lowly evening. Cheadle, as profoundly expressed, does have talent as a director, and his portrayal of the raspy-voiced Davis is electrifying, but it is debateable whether the unfocused and often unbalanced nature of Miles Ahead is perhaps more true to the real-life Miles Davis than any other biopic could have accomplished. Our guess is that it might be, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to wholesome big-screen entertainment.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Miles Ahead is Don Cheadle’s attempt to broadcast his passion for the life and legacy of Miles Davis, but while his lead performance and direction certainly shows how much he loves his subject, Cheadle somehow makes the more biographical segments significantly less engaging than the undoubtedly fictional main body, which ultimately makes it something of a structural mess.