Review: MILES AHEAD, Cool Attitude Prevails In Don Cheadle's Unconventional Miles Davis Biopic
Doing a biopic on a legend is always a challenge. Doing justice to the subject it is portraying, even more so, is especially challenging when it's someone like Miles Davis. It's rather surprising that there wasn't a movie or two made about Davis already, given his status as one of the most influential musicians America has ever produced.
Don Cheadle, one of the most gifted, underrated actors of his generation, was approached by the Davis Estate (son Erin Davis and nephew Vince Wilburn) to take on the challenge and with their blessings, goes on to tell the story the way he wanted, and ended up starring, directing and co-writing. He even raised money through crowdfunding. And he succeeds in making an energetic, entertaining cinematic ode to a true legend.
I can't think of any album that is more perfect than Kind of Blue. Its melodic, incredibly elegant musical arrangement was a revelation when complex, virtuosic solo oriented be-bop dominated the jazz scene when the album came out in 1959. His extremely emotive trumpet playing had no equal and is still instantly recognizable. It was my staple background music in my college dorm room and I have to admit, the album got me laid many times.
Even though Miles Davis was responsible for putting jazz on the higher echelons in the music world with improvisation that influenced countless other jazz greats, Davis didn't want to be pigeonholed as a 'jazz' musician. He moved on to exploring other sounds, always trailblazing in things to come. Jazz purists turned their back on his music in his later years and stuck to Birth of the Cool, 'Round About Midnight, Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, but In a Silent Way (1969) is a great album, so is Tutu (1986), so is Doo-Bop (1991). Along with David Bowie, Davis was one of the true innovators and musical geniuses of the 20th century.
The phrase, "It's all about improvisation," starts Miles Ahead, a very unusual biopic on one of the most iconic musicians who ever lived. It's set in 1979, at the end of Davis's five-year seclusion (around 1975 to '80) while battling with drug and alcohol abuse, various health ailments and Columbia Records after the success of Bitches' Brew during his jazz fusion period. Blending elements of fiction and the musician's real life stories, the film is in part a love story, in part the story of a genius artist struggling with his demons, and in part a buddy action comedy that could easily be titled Ride Along with Miles Motherfucking Davis.
Ewan McGregor plays a fictional Rolling Stone Journalist named Dave Brill. Out of extreme personal interest as a fan, he longs to hear Davis (Don Cheadle)'s demo tape that supposedly contains yet another breakthrough masterwork the musician has been toiling away on in his Upper Westside apartment during those missing years. But as it turns out, he isn't the only one who wants to get a hand on that tape. Columbia Records execs are holding Davis's payments because he is contractually obligated to turn in any new materials in order to get paid.
Throw a shyster producer named Harper (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his drug addled trumpet protégé Junior (LaKeith Stanfield, Short Term 12, Straight Outta Compton) into the mix and we got an unforgettable night out with the ill-tempered, crazy little man with a wild jerry curls and a raspy voice in colorful silk pajamas. Through the course of the day, the duo goes from his basement/studio for impromptu boxing lessons, to the ringside, to a Columbia University dorm room (to score some high-end cocaine), to wild car chases in the city that end in gunfights.
But it's the memories of his first wife, Frances Taylor (luminous Emayatzy Corinealdi), that haunts the famous musician. In inter-cutting flashbacks shot on super 16mm film, we see suave Davis courting Frances, then an ingenue classical dancer, who goes on to give up her career to be a stay-at-home wife for him.
She is a constant reminder of his happier (and tumultuous) times as she graced herself on the cover of his 1961 album, Someday My Prince Will Come Along which he somehow finds everywhere he goes. Cheadle and co-writer Steven Baigelman don't shy away from Davis's drug addled violent behavior. The couple's fight scene that lands both of them on the floor littered with shattered glasses is brutal and appropriately explains why Frances left him for good.
Miles Ahead doesn't play out like the work of a first time director. Shot on HD and film, frenetic editing, and some of the best syncopating transition shots in any movie of recent years, the film demonstrates Cheadle's cinematic flair. It also showcases Cheadle's dexterity as a performer who can really turn on the heat. He is completely at ease as the enigmatic musician, actually playing trumpet in many of the musical scenes himself. My favorite scene in the film is that of Davis working on a recording session with legendary jazz pianist, composer Gil Evans (Jeffrey Grover): it captures Davis's creative process in a natural, intimate setting among other musicians. It's so lived in, it feels like you are watching a documentary.
The fictional part of Miles Ahead, however entertaining it is, is a pulp. It doesn't resemble the incredible smoothness and sophistication of Kind of Blue. But in the spirit of jazz improvisation, Cheadle has the right attitude; the film is bustling with energy and crackling with wry humor. I remember Davis's appearance in a Miami Vice episode, playing a pimp in a flamboyant red garb. He really didn't give a fuck what anyone thought. Miles Ahead is definitely something Davis would have enjoyed watching, since he was never a classicist anyway.
Miles Ahead will be released by Sony Pictures Classics in New York and Los Angeles on April 1, before expanding to additional markets.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com