Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Don Cheadle
Stars: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michael Stahlberg, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Austin Lyon, Brian Wolfman Black Bowman.
Miles Davis is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential jazz musicians of the twentieth century who produced seminal works like Sketches Of Spain and Someday My Prince Will Come. But in the late 70s he briefly disappeared from the scene for some five years due to chronic health problems related to his hip, his addiction to drugs and alcohol and losing his creativity.
This is not a straightforward or conventional biopic of Davis during that time, but more of an impressionistic and fictional take on the character and his behaviour during that period. It is also something of a redemption tale as Davis begins the path to recovery from his various addictions and makes a triumphant musical comeback. Miles Ahead is a fictitious narrative set during a couple of hectic days in the musician’s life during that period when he had faded from the public’s consciousness.
One morning Rolling Stone journalist Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) knocks on Davis’ door demanding an interview with the reclusive artist about his rumoured comeback with new material. At first Davis refuses, but enlists Braden’s help in trying to ensure that his record company pays him money due him for his record sales. Through a chain of (somewhat unlikely) events Braden is caught up in a strange situation that plays out like a 70s Blaxploitation action movie. The tapes of Davis’ demo recordings are stolen by an unscrupulous record executive (Michael Stahlberg, recently seen as Edward G Robinson in Trumbo) and his younger protege, and Braden and Davis get involved in a desperate pursuit that includes car chases and a bit of gun play. The stolen tape provides the film with its macguffin.
But interspersed through this narrative are lots of flashbacks that give us a glimpse of a certain period of Davis’ life before he temporarily fell apart. We get a glimpse of his womanising, his drug addiction, the casual racism of the time, and his tempestuous relationship with Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a dancer who became his muse and wife of ten years before she left him when he grew violent and dangerously paranoid. Some parts seem overly familiar and the stuff of numerous other biopics. There is even a character named Junior (played by Lakeith Lee Stanfield), a rising young trumpet player, who is possibly supposed to be the young Davis himself.
Miles Ahead is a warts and all portrait of Davis, and makes no attempt to gloss over his imperfections. Rather than a vanity project, this is something of a labour of love for Don Cheadle (Iron Man, Avengers: Age Of Ultron, tv series House Of Lies, etc) who not only plays Davis here, but he has also written the script with Stephen Baigelman (Feeling Minnesota, etc), and Stephen J Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (the biopic Ali, etc). They paint a complex picture of a flawed musical genius in decline. Such was Cheadle’s dedication to the project that he even learned to play the trumpet so as to bring a sense of authenticity and texture to the material.
Cheadle also makes his directorial debut here, and it is an assured and confident debut behind the camera. Cheadle himself gives a strong performance and he undergoes a superb physical transformation as the mercurial Davis. McGregor brings a brash and cocky attitude to his performance as the opportunistic Braden, a fictitious character created to serve the narrative. Corinealdi brings a strong emotional element to the film with her performance as Frances, especially in those tumultuous scenes of domestic upheaval when Davis’ frustrations and paranoia overwhelm the couple and their relationship dissolves. Stuhlbarg is wonderfully oily as the unscrupulous record company executive.
Far from a hagiography, the film is Cheadle’s impressionistic take on Davis’ life and his approach to his music, and he directs with a free wheeling energy. The film unfolds with a primal and raw energy that matches the rhythms of Davis’ music, which fills the soundtrack along with contributions from the likes of Herbie Hancock. And John Axelrad and Kayla Emter’s dynamic and frenetic editing conveys a strong sense of excitement and chaos.
Miles Ahead is an interesting if unconventional take on the life of a legendary jazz musician whose personal life was a bit of a mess, and while it has attitude to spare it is also a little uneven tonally. Ultimately it is not in the same league as Bird, Clint Eastwood’s superb biopic on the legendary Charlie Parker, or Ray, the Oscar winning biopic of blind Pianist Ray Charles.