'Miles Ahead' is Far Behind the Biopic Greats

Ensign Lestat's Film Log, 16/07/2016

Miles Davis is an iconic figure in music history. His trumpet-playing is legendary. Hence, it's not a surprise that a biopic has been made about him (a long time coming, one would think) and that it falls well short of encapsulating the enigma he must have been in his heyday.

'Miles Ahead' follows Davis (Don Cheadle) on his journey to get his music back. On this ride he is accompanied by Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) and sundry members of his record company and people from his life.
The story goes back and forth between the events with Braden, and Davis' recollections of his time with his wife Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Through the exceptional use of match cuts, the film relates current incidents with those of Davis' past.

The film is Don Cheadle's feature film directorial debut, and unfortunately, his inexperience shows. The use of a fictional reporter vying for a story being the central conceit of a biopic is tired. There are scenes included that have no relevance to the overall story; other scenes are thrown in without context, taking away their impact.

At every point it feels like the film wants to ensure we never get the impression that Davis was a nice or good person. He's heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol when we meet him, and the scenes from his past include the same. He's horrible to his wife, a professional dancer, and has no care for the company that ostensibly owns him. We get that, but not why he behaves the way he does, or what drove/introduced him to the world of debauchery. Surely that should be a significant aspect of the story.

The part of the film that I liked has nothing to do with the man himself. The majority of the 70s events follow the whereabouts of Davis' session tape, made during his 5-year hiatus. His record company wants it, but he won't give it to them. Much gun-toting, swearing and threatening takes place before there is peace. From my understanding, none of this is true, Cheadle just didn't want to make a 'biopic'. I like the 'anti-biopic' approach, yet it's so uneven that it becomes less fun, especially near the end when there is no real resolution.

The entire heist part is great, because it comes across as a buddy-cop film; I wish they'd stuck to that part and let parts of his past sneak into the story organically. The film's approach is mixed and does justice to no party, especially not to the icon or his music.

Cheadle is a phenomenal actor and this role is yet another notch in his belt. He captures Davis through his voice and, especially in the 'present day' the laboured movements of a man in pain. He is emotive at all the right times, displaying everything from pain, frustration and anger to love and contentment. His dedication to his art is evident as he learnt to play the trumpet so that he could competently display his skills on camera. He's effortless as always, and I wouldn't be surprised if his name crops up during Awards season.

I loved Ewan McGregor in this film. His ability to play the average Joe in an extraordinary circumstance never ceases to amaze me. He is a typical misfit in this story, harking back to his endearing 'A Life Less Ordinary' performance. He doesn't put a foot wrong and seems to be enjoying every part of this crazy journey. His chemistry with Cheadle is spectacular and the two of them riff off each other beautifully. The more time they spent on screen together, the more I wished Cheadle had given up the ghost and decided to write a fantastical heist film starring Miles Davis. Honestly, that was the part that worked, not the actual biopic!
It's fair to say no story or film about a genius will ever be enough to encapsulate their entire life, nor will it be a comfortable watch, given the fact that by unwritten law all geniuses must be horrible people (read my review of 'Get On Up' here for more on that). I think this story in the hands of a more experienced writing and directing team could have whipped it into some cohesive shape. One that pinpointed the target audience audience and a singular aspect of the musician's life and then ran with it. Or the team could have been courageous enough to turn it into that buddy-comedy it was aching to be.

Fantastic performances can't save this film from being a spectacular mess. A story with no context and no history is no story at all, and that's what 'Miles Ahead' feels like.

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