Acclaimed actor Don Cheadle has fought long and hard to create a Miles Davis biopic, and all that work comes to fruition in the new film Miles Ahead - the success of which depends (much like your opinion of Davis’ work) on your own tastes.
Directed, co-written, and starring Cheadle as the man himself, the film details Davis’ long hiatus from music in the 1970’s. After persistent journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) pushes his way into Davis’ life, the pair fight to recover a stolen session recording in the midst of Davis’ hallucinations that take his mind back to his failed marriage to Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Plagued by broken memories and dragged down by insecurity and drug abuse, Davis is in denial about requiring a ‘comeback’ - but can the people around him force him to pick up the trumpet once again?
Between the slick editing, rich style, and stellar performances, there is a lot to enjoy about this film - provided you like the style of its subject. In many ways, the picture mirrors Davis’ musical style by turning Jazz into a film genre. If the movie is to be believed, however, Davis himself was not a fan of the label ‘Jazz’, choosing instead to call his style ‘Social Music’; perhaps, then, a better genre title would be ‘Social Cinema’.
This unique genre is most evident in the clever editing and quirky cinematography. Employing a variety of quick cuts, lingering takes, and abstract angles/motions, the tempo is best described as fluid, creating a stream-of-consciousness feel with fascinating switches from fast, high-intensity action to lingering, regretful reminiscence. The visual style could be confusing to some viewers expecting a more straight-forward story, but for those willing to just enjoy the ride, they are likely to find it a treat.
The performances are yet another strength. McGregor’s Dave Brill has a brilliant metamorphosis from a relentless investigator, to reactionary survivalist, to trusted friend. Corinealdi’s performance as the strong-willed Frances, who sacrifices her goals for the sake of love, is hauntingly tragic. A special mention goes to up-and-coming performer Keith Stanfield as a trumpet virtuoso eager to make his mark who is caught up with the wrong management, as well as a drug habit of his own. The centrepiece, of course, is Cheadle, who plays Davis with such authenticity and oddly aggressive charm that he manages to elevate the entire picture to another level of entertainment.
All aspects of the film really do match the style of Davis, and in that, Cheadle has succeeded with his goal. The average viewer may have reservations regarding the stylistic choices, which can seem rushed or chaotic to anyone unwilling to accept the work and go along with it. Much like the music, however, if you enjoy the style, the substance is there, and the quality is exceptional. Overall, for fans of ‘Social Music’, this is a brilliant piece of ‘Social Cinema’.
Miles Ahead is now playing at The Hyland Cinema.
4 (out of 5)
Thomas Vickers is a London-based filmmaker and The Beat Magazine's resident film critic.