REVIEW: ‘MILES AHEAD’ (2016), An Excellent Biopic

28 Apr , 2016  

Don Cheadle jokes, about 10 seconds into Miles Ahead, “My throat sound scratchy? Heh, heh, heh.”

The answer is yes (but not distractingly so), and it is but one example of how the film’s writer/director/star Don Cheadle comes to embody Miles Davis. Plagued by writer’s block and chronic hip problems, and haunted by memories of his ex-wife Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi), Cheadle’s Davis is a man holed up in his house, high, whiling away his time. It’s 1979 and Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), a reporter/opportunist (or is that redundant?) from Rolling Stone, cons his way into Davis’s stuffy, closed up life, desperate to interview him. Together, Braden and Davis encounter Junior (Lakeith Lee Stanfield), a young, up-and-coming trumpeter who desperately wants to play for his idol and Junior’s agent Harper (Michael Stuhlbarg), who desperately wants in on Columbia Records’ good graces.

Columbia just wants the music Davis is contractually obligated to give them, which introduces the film’s McGuffin – the Miles Davis session tape everyone wants as their own personal bargaining chip.

Miles Ahead, written by Cheadle and Steven Baigelman, is rooted in one moment in Davis’s life, but the non-linear film still makes some forays into the past; it jumps backward and forward, and side to side, just like Cheadle’s camera work. Cheadle shows himself to be a dynamic filmmaker with a unique style and vision for this film, better than your standard biopic, which is seemingly critiqued within the dialogue. Characters can literally fall from one scene into another. Some scenes overlap. Cheadle shows the film’s present at a frenetic pace, disorienting at times but never uncomfortable or distracting.

As an actor, Cheadle turns in a nuanced, compelling performance, and he carries the film on his shoulders; the man is in every scene. Cheadle and McGregor have a great rapport and are excellent in scenes together once Davis starts to open up to Braden. As they found themselves in an outlandish situation, I found myself thinking I want these two in a buddy comedy.

The aforementioned forays into Davis’s past are interesting and help move the film, if not always the plot, forward. But, more importantly, the returns to a quieter, soft-lit past allow us to spend time with Corinealdi’s Frances. Corinealdi is asked to be a representation more than be a character, but she doesn’t wilt under the weight of being a symbol. She remains real and imperfect. Stanfield, his character essentially a young Miles Davis, is another clever way to look into Davis’s past. An air of sadness permeates Stanfield’s scenes because you can so clearly see Davis in him, so you who Junior will become, even though he can’t yet see it. And Stuhlbarg manages to stand out as the worst of all of the characters, which is a feat considering all are different combinations of sleazy, skeevy, and smarmy.

I imagine a film like Miles Ahead, much like last year’s best musical biopic STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, will receive some criticism for not emphasizing just how bad a dude Miles Davis was (you can do a Google search for that if you’re curious). But, to be clear, Davis is not designed to be a sympathetic character in this film; he is emotionally and physically abusive, selfish and thoughtless. But he is human – Cheadle’s performance is achingly so – and it makes him quite the tragic character.

Miles Ahead is not a cradle to the grave biopic; it is the story of a man in one moment in time, and how elements of his past have informed that present. It’s not the definitive guide to the life of Miles Davis. But it doesn’t have to be. What it is – a great film about a complex man – is more than enough.

Miles Ahead (2016), starring Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Lakeith Lee Stanfield and Michael Stuhlbarg, is rated R for strong language throughout, drug use, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence.

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