Cinematic Releases: Miles Ahead - Reviewed

Andrew reviews the unconventional biopic of the famed Jazz icon.

The directorial debut of actor Don Cheadle in what would prove to be a long gestating labor of love culminates in the most unconventional biopic of a major historical artist since E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire.  Taking the name from Miles Davis' own 1957 album Miles Ahead with Cheadle in the titular role of the world famous Jazz icon and sanctioned by Davis' estate who were instrumental in getting the project off the ground, Cheadle's take on one of my musical heroes captures the essence of the man while exploring the mythologized legend as well as the literal figure at the epicenter of it all.  Bear in mind, this is a highly fictitious interpretation of Miles Davis which invents a modern day story thread involving the so-called "lost days" of Davis near the end of his career as he struggles with cocaine addiction, battling with ruthless Columbia Records executives and taking a fictionalized Rolling Stone journalist named Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) under his wing for a night of drugs, sucker punches and flying bullets.  All the while, Cheadle's narrative jumps back and forth between the present time and anecdotal flashbacks of Davis recording in the studio with Gil Evans (Jeffrey Grover) and reminiscing about his failed marriage with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) with frequent references to Taylor on the cover of his seventh studio album Someday My Prince Will Come.  Rather than taking the conventional biopic route, Miles Ahead lies somewhere between the aforementioned Shadow of the Vampire and Oliver Stone's The Doors for its eclectic mixture of fact and fiction with the expectation audiences know a thing or two about the legendary musician before buying a ticket.  

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To think Davis' estate wanted the legacy of the world famous musician to go down in film as a womanizing gun toting cocaine addict with more than a few abuses committed toward his wife Frances Taylor is bewildering, yet here is Cheadle's interpretation replete with the Davis estate's stamp of approval.  In a way, this fictionalized approach captures the spirit and flavor of listening to one of the iconic musician's albums rather than giving us the man warts and all, although all of the flashbacks seen in the jumpy narrative are true.  

I'm sooooooo cooool.
The soundtrack consists almost entirely of Davis' music with some minor contributions by Robert Glasper.  According to Davis' estate, if there is any man out there who looks, sounds, acts and feels like the real Miles Davis, I haven't seen him outside of Don Cheadle's film yet.  Facts aside, I was always a fan of Cheadle's work and Miles Ahead may be his best performance as an actor yet!  It's a wholly convincing performance right down to the hair, the sharp angry eyes, the raspy voice and the intonations.  Like Oliver Stone's The Doors, Miles Ahead works hard to leave you with the impression that Miles Davis was a wild man when he wasn't simply being a bad dude although it leaves room for the belief that Davis was simply an uncontrollable force of nature.  We get to see some elements of his creative process and his boundless musical talent, but mostly Miles Ahead is about the next cocaine fix he's desperately looking for.  As a first time director, Cheadle shows a keen understanding of drama and mise-en-scene with his carefully planned camera placement and lush Super 16mm cinematography by Roberto Schaefer giving the film a thick carpet look with intentional blurriness.  Not since Todd Haynes' Carol has low resolution grainy cinematography looked this painterly on the big screen.  

Purists will no doubt be frustrated and decry the use of fiction to evoke a historical figure rather than depict him literally, although Cheadle peppers the film with enough flashbacks to give this unconventional biopic a sense of balance.  Those looking for a straight up depiction of Miles Davis' life story are simply not going to get it here and as such functions as more of a companion piece to his legacy and lore than the truth.  The strange thing is, for as low as Davis goes here, I found myself wanting to look up Davis' history and couldn't wait to listen to Bitches Brew or Kind of Blue again.  Having a framed glass poster of Mr. Davis on my wall next to my movie and music collection, it goes without saying the man is an important figure in my musical vocabulary and it will be difficult to look at his art and image the same way again after having seen Cheadle's film.  This is one of those rare biographies of an artist far more interested in the mythic character than the literal flesh and blood human being that was Miles Davis.  Knowing this before going in will prove helpful to one's overall enjoyment of the picture and the musical gifts Davis' talents had to offer.  If Cheadle's aim was to renew interest in the artist's discography or introduce his timelessly great music to a whole new generation of fans, I will concede with Miles Ahead he brilliantly succeeded.  


- Andrew Kotwicki