I was interested to see how Don Cheadle would handle the duties of directing a feature film, so despite not being eager to see another musician biopic I knew I had to catch Miles Ahead. While it doesn’t manage to leave all of the tropes of that genre behind, Cheadle does a pretty interesting job trying to do so. Not a huge outstanding masterpiece, but definitely worth seeing.
The film follows Davis (Don Cheadle) and a Rolling Stone reporter, Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) as they run around New York trying to get Davis’ stolen session tapes back. Dave is trying to get to know Davis to write a comeback story on him, so the film is able to employ a sort of Citizen Kane-like reporter figure who is trying to figure out the main character. Though Davis is unquestionably still alive, the question becomes whether or not he is dead musically. Interspersed with this exploration are flashbacks to when his career was on the rise and his relationship with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi).
Even though this is perhaps the most standard-biopic aspect of the film, the flashbacks of Miles’ relationship with Frances were the most interesting part of the film with me. I thought some of the buddy type moments between Davis and Miles were kind of awkward, and the quest to get the tapes back felt like a MacGuffin-type move to have a reason for the movie to exist, and not that compelling outside of that. The incorporation of the flashbacks are probably also the most stylishly inventive part of the film, even though the type of editing they use to get us back into the flashback material has been seen before. Essentially they’re match cuts, for example someone will fall down in present day and then cut to someone getting up off the floor in the flashbacks. It definitely draws attention to itself, but I found myself liking it anyway despite myself.
The stuff in the flashbacks is very Raging Bull, maybe why I liked it. It doesn’t go as far as that movie, it would be hard to do that, but performance of Emayatzy Corinealdi does a lot to elevate the material. They battle over their careers, as Miles gets her to quit dancing and then precedes to have a bunch of affairs and essentially ignore her contribution to their marriage. Though it’s not a great way for a story to go and it’s definitely stuff we’ve seen before (Miles gets insanely and violently jealous, seemingly for no reason), I really think her performance was incredibly expressive through her facial expressions and body language (she definitely comes across as a dancer onscreen).
I think towards the end the film starts to go off the rails a little bit, as Miles, with Dave in tow, shows up at a boxing match and demands his tapes back from the agent that stole them (Michael Stuhlbarg). For reasons unknown to me, he starts to hallucinate (or the film just literalizes what he’s feeling) his past performances in that current-day setting. It didn’t really seem to make sense to me, and just felt like the film being artsy for artsy-ness’ sake at that point. However it goes even farther than that by the end that did seem to be successful at the end (at least I got it). It shows a hypothetical performance that seems to take place in present day (present day as in 2015; Davis passed away in the ’90s) with current day musicians, suggesting that his influence and musical spirit lives on.
I did really like the visual style of the film, when all was said and done. Most of the events take place from the 50s to the 70s, and I thought they did a really good job with the period details and the image quality to convey that time period. If I’m interpreting imdb correctly, the movie was at least partially shot with digital and partially on 16mm, which I was trying to figure out while watching the movie because I noticed the interesting graininess of the film at some points in the movie. Cinematography was by Roberto Schaefer (who did Quantum of Solace of all things).
Miles Ahead might not be the most groundbreaking musical biopic of all time, but it is pretty decent. Even if it doesn’t 100% knock it out of the park, it’s interesting to see Cheadle go for it in his directorial debut. I liked the 60s/70s feel of the film, and I thought Corinealdi was an especially exciting discovery. If the point of view of the film had just been a little bit clearer (are the flashbacks coming from Miles or from the film itself?), it would have been a lot more effective.
Long story short: 3/4 stars