Director: Don Cheadle
Cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Lakeith Lee Stanfield
MPAA Rating: (for strong language throughout, drug use, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence)
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 4/1/16 (limited); 4/8/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 7, 2016
Yes, cinematic biographies need to take risks and experiment with storytelling. If they don't, they hazard becoming just another in the long line of cookie-cutter narratives about people whose lives probably deserve more consideration than what we see on the screen. Miles Ahead is a daring exercise in risk-taking and experimentation with the format of a movie biography. As hypocritical as this might sound after those opening declarations, the movie might be erring on the side of trying to do something different at the expense of its subject.
The movie covers a 24-hour period in the life of Miles Davis, the legendary jazz musician who took to living in seclusion after about three decades of being in the profession. He would emerge from self-imposed isolation, of course, and get about another decade of music under his belt before his death in 1991 at the age of 65. Such a timeline, though, does not matter to the portrait created by this movie (In the movie, Davis makes a joke of the uselessness of a straightforward life story: When asked to recall his life, he simply says he was born, played some music, and, now, is here). It exists over the course of this day in 1979, when the last thing on Davis' mind is his career or even music.
The screenplay by Steven Baigelman and director/star Don Cheadle (his feature debut as a writer and director) follows that mentality. This isn't a movie about Miles Davis as a trumpeter and composer. It's a movie about Miles Davis as a loner and a troubled soul. It's everyone else in the movie—from the record label executive who paid a hefty sum for new material from the one and only Miles Davis to the producer who wants the Miles Davis stamp of approval for his new artist to the journalist who wants to tell the real story of Miles Davis—who cares about the man's work—what he has done and what he might still be able to do. For his part, the Davis of the movie wishes those other people would exclude him from such conversations and just leave him alone.
This Davis, as played by Cheadle, is a man escaping from the things from his past that haunt him by indulging in the demons of his present. He's holed up in his spacious New York City home, and the ample room of the place is taken up with a lot of stuff thrown about the floor and piled up on furniture. It's a reflection of his life at the moment. He has a nasty substance-abuse problem and a short fuse of a temper.
What we see in these early moments of this version of Davis (after a prologue that picks up in the middle of a chase scene that obtains some context near the end of the movie) is the entirety of what we get. There are flashbacks to his earlier, "better" days in the 1950s, although those primarily serve as a way of explaining how he got to the point where he is in the movie's present.
The screenplay frames Davis' story within the context of his relationships with two people: a journalist named Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) in the present and Davis' first wife Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) in the past. Dave fakes his way into Davis' presence. Davis calls Dave on his bluff and ends up threatening a roomful of suits at Columbia Records with a pistol in the process. They want new recordings from Davis, and Davis wants the money they promised him for those recordings. Dave plans to find the music and bring it to Columbia, and he uses Davis' single-minded obsession with finding his next drug fix to earn his trust.
This section of the movie doesn't play like the typical biography. It has the feeling of the stuff of urban legend—Davis paying for cocaine by autographing a college student's albums, his hunt for a producer (Michael Stuhlbarg) who steals his recordings, the car chase, and a violent showdown at a boxing match. Everything, from Davis' manner to the events that unfold, has a heightened quality. Cheadle and Baigelman aren't portraying a man. They're creating a myth.
Meanwhile during the '50s, Davis and Frances have a love affair and marriage that follow the usual path of such stories. Their happiness turns to misery as Davis becomes more controlling, starts having affairs, and engages in domestic violence (which the movie portrays as a reciprocally abusive relationship in a climactic scene).
Far more interesting than what the movie presents is how Cheadle blurs the lines between the present and the past. An elevator at the Columbia offices adorned with album covers, including one for which Frances modeled, becomes a doorway to Davis' life before his troubles really started. In one shot, the perception of his home splits in half between its current, disheveled state and the bright, clean place where he could have had a happy life, if not for himself.
As Davis states during an interview segment, the point of Miles Ahead, above all else, is the attitude with which this story is told. It has that right, but the cost is seeing this man as anything more than a mythical, troubled cipher.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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