Sunday, April 3, 2016

Review: Miles Ahead

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. 
As an art form, one of jazz's key components is improvisation - or, the act of creating spontaneous alterations, flourishes or new melodies over a continuously repeating cycle of chord changes. Don Cheadle's directorial debut, "Miles Ahead," follows the trail blazed by the jazz legend Miles Davis (also played by Cheadle) by incorporating an improvisatorial style into its otherwise straightforward narrative about the ups and downs of a landmark musician.

Most music biopics follow a straight line - humble beginnings, a big break, rise to fame, corruption by fame, drugs, dysfunctional relationships, hitting rock bottom and a culmination that typically involves rebirth or death. Recent examples of this archetypal story are the pretty solid Chet Baker biopic "Born to Be Blue" or the not-so-well-received Hank Williams film "I Saw the Light."

Only a few biopics of musicians from recent years stand out, most notably Todd Haynes' remarkable Bob Dylan film "I'm Not There" and F. Gary Gray's N.W.A. picture "Straight Outta Compton." In both cases, the narrative was about more than just the music. So, while Cheadle's Miles Davis bio isn't quite up to the standard set by those two films, it's still pretty solid, mostly due to an excellent performance by Cheadle, a creative use of film stocks and an improvisatorial style that would have made Miles proud.

I'm not completely sure how much of the film actually follows Davis's life - did he really pull a gun on all of the people he does during the course of this film? - but I'm pretty sure that the Rolling Stone reporter played by Ewan McGregor here serves the same purpose that James McAvoy did in "The Last King of Scotland" - that is, a fictional character who acts as an entryway into a famous person's life.

The film opens in the mid-1970s with McGregor's Dave Brill knocking on Davis's door to try to score a story about some unreleased material that Davis has been sitting on for some years. At the time of Brill's appearance, it's been five years since Davis has played publicly or released an album. Needless to say, Brill's showing up doesn't make Davis - who is quick to throw out a threatening word, punch or insult - particularly happy.

The film skips back and forth as Brill ingratiates himself to the jazz legend and the duo attempts to steal back his latest recording session from some shady characters who've snatched them and are attempting to hand them over to record studio executives. Again, I'm a bit skeptical as to whether anything of the sort took place in Davis's life and more convinced that it's a narrative device. Either way, it doesn't particularly matter.

In the meantime, Davis flashes back to his iconic recording sessions where he crafts such masterworks as "Kind of Blue" and "Sketches of Spain" and his troubled relationship with his wife Frances Taylor (a very good Emayatzy Corinealdi). Similar to other great musicians of biopics past, Davis has drug problems, philanders and occasionally gets into physical altercations with his significant other. In this film, the latter are handled pretty well. It's a warts-and-all approach that forgoes hagiography and doesn't flinch from showing its central character's personal flaws.

A number of the scenes from various eras depicted - including the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s - are shot with film stocks that would likely have been used during those eras and this technique gives the film a rich visual style. It also helps that Cheadle completely disappears into the lead role, raspy voice and all. Cheadle is among the most underrated actors in American movies and this is one of his strongest performances.

So, while in the end "Miles Ahead" is - to some extent - just another biopic of a landmark musician, it's one that is well made and acted and occasionally stylistically bold. It's definitely worth a look and should create some excitement for whatever Cheadle - hopefully - does next behind the camera.

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