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Review: Miles Ahead (2016)

Miles Ahead (2016)

Directed by: Don Cheadle

Premise: Set in the late 1970s, a reporter (Ewan McGregor) insinuates himself into the life of Miles Davis (Don Cheadle). The writer attempts to sort out Davis’ musical career while Davis experiences flashbacks to his failed marriage to Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi).

What Works: Miles Ahead is an unconventional biographical picture in a way that befits the subject matter. Miles Davis remains an enigmatic figure and the filmmakers play into that. They don’t try to demystify Davis but rather make an impressionistic movie about the turbulent forces in his life. Miles Ahead takes place in the late 1970s when Davis was living as a recluse and coping with severe health problems. The movie picks up with Davis partly recovered and having recorded a session for Columbia that the record company insists he turn into a finished product. Into this comes Dave Braden, a fictional music writer played by Ewan McGregor. Braden wants to break through Davis’ veneer and tell the truth about the famous musician and after some back and forth Davis’ allows the writer to accompany him for a couple of days. The present tense struggle over the disputed session tapes and Davis’ erratic adventures with a journalist are cross cut with flashbacks to Davis’ relationship to dancer Frances Taylor. Miles Ahead is extremely well put together. This is the debut directorial feature for Don Cheadle who also shares the writing credit and plays Miles Davis. The picture has a jazz-like construction in the way that it lucidly shifts between past and present. The filmmakers employ some subtle effects such as shooting the flashback sequences on 16mm film, giving the past a distinct look, and the imagery moves elegantly from one temporal period to the next through composite shots and camera moves. In addition to his impressive directing job, Cheadle provides a terrific performance as Miles Davis. He exudes the coolness that defined Davis but Cheadle keep this music icon within the boundaries of humanity. As he’s portrayed here, Davis was an artist who was damaged and unable to articulate himself to others except through music. Miles Ahead also includes an impressive performance by Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances Taylor. Her character is a bit more than the dutiful spouse she and Cheadle have a volatile but passionate on screen chemistry.

What Doesn’t: For viewers who don’t know much about the music and life of Miles Davis, this film is probably not a good introduction. Miles Ahead concentrates on a couple of days in Davis’ life with flashbacks filling in his relationship with Frances Taylor. But the film mixes actual events with a lot of fictional material, namely the journalist played by Ewan McGregor and most of the drama over the disputed session tapes. Miles Ahead is not so much based on a true story as it is a fictional story inspired by the life and work of a real artist. As a result, fans of Miles Davis may be disappointed to find that this picture does not tell the musician’s life story or recreate the making of his seminal albums in the way of a more conventional biographical picture. The idea here is to explore the character of Miles Davis was not as a matter of dramatized facts but as an impression of who this man was, especially at this particularly bleak point in his life. Miles Ahead is a collage of images and events and it doesn’t operate under the typical rules of biographical storytelling or even mainstream narrative moviemaking. As such it’s a little disorienting but that’s appropriate to the subject matter. However, the film fails to wring enough expository information or dramatic substance out of Davis’ relationship with Frances Taylor. This subplot could have used a few more beats; she was his muse but the film doesn’t really establish the link between Taylor and Davis’ work.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurette, interview, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Miles Ahead is a unique biographical drama and an impressive directorial debut by Don Cheadle. The film plays fast and loose with the facts of Miles Davis’ life but its exaggerations and inventions complement this subject matter in a way that they might not suit another musician’s story.

Episode: #612 (September 18, 2016)