Miles Ahead (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong language throughout, drug use, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Lakeith Lee Stanfield
Cameo: Herbie Hancok, Gary Clark Jr., Esperanza Spalding
Director: Don Cheadle
Screenplay: Steven Baigelman, Don Cheadle
Review published May 1, 2016
A labor of love over a decade in the making from director/co-writer Don Cheadle (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man 3), his first feature attempt at either, Miles Ahead is an unorthodox and interpretive take on legendary jazz genius Miles Davis, eschewing the facts of the trumpeter's life for a metaphorical representation of what the artist had gone through during a key stage in his career, putting him in the middle of a loose-hanging crime caper. Using the device of the 'unreliable narrator' at the crux of this Miles Davis introspection, Cheadle plays nearly as improvisational with the traditional biopic as Davis himself would in his perpetual experimentation with music. Cheadle attempts to riff the way Miles might have, trying to uncover a larger truth about who he really is, even if he has to use a good deal of fabrication to bring forward those truths out. What the film can be said to be really about is who controls the music of an artist signed to a major label, as the tug-of-war exists throughout Miles Ahead between Miles and his record label, Columbia Records.
Set mainly during the course of about a day in the musician's life in New York's Upper West Side (Cincinnati substitutes) in 1979, when creatively burnt-out Miles had taken a self-imposed five-years-and-counting break from releasing new music. Columbia Records had grown increasingly challenged in their relationship with their most eccentric and erratic recording artist, who claims he would give them something new if they paid him the $20,000 they owe him, with both parties knowing they could all make so much more if he were to hand over the studio recording reel that he'd been working on in the interim. Enter a man claiming to be a highly ambitious Rolling Stone reporter Dave Brill (a fictional character, reportedly scripted in to bring on a white lead actor like Ewan McGregor (Jane Got a Gun, Mortdecai), to help get funding), who wants to not only help his publication sell papers by getting the reclusive Miles Davis to record an increasingly rare in-depth interview with him, but to also facilitate seeing Miles hand over that unpublished recording that is sure to make music history. When the master tape ends up missing, the volatile Miles takes matters into his own hands, resulting in a life-or-death struggle to wrest ownership back where he feels it belongs.
Cheadle bring about a great deal of visual flair to complement the vibrant sound of Miles' music. A fine an actor as could ever be chose to play Miles, Cheadle looks and acts the part better than most who are leads in musical biopics, and has even spent four years learning to play so that he could play and key to Miles' actual music that's dubbed over his own during the film. Miles Ahead also delves into a motivating factor for Davis to maintain at least a modicum of money and fame -- his addiction to cocaine. Part of his problem with his addiction as well as the perceived loss of his creative mojo stems from his reminiscences on the 'woman that got away', Frances Taylor (Corinealdi, The Invitation), a dancer who Davis would eventually marry in the late 1950s. It would end up being a rocky relationship that brought forth a great many regrets to Davis, as his ego would continue to stand in the way with being able to embrace his loving partner fully.
Taylor is painted as the lone person in Miles' life who isn't merely trying to use exposure to him for their own advancement. Reporters want a leg-up in the industry by getting a big scoop, record label execs want to push out another high-profile, award-winning record, and music producers want Davis to use his proverbial 'Midas Touch' to give his approval for their hungry artists looking to get a break in an industry where there are hundreds who want to be the heir to the Miles Davis throne. Even drug dealers are willing to cut Davis a discount rate for an autograph, though even then, Davis is reluctant to have to give up any piece of himself if it isn't of his own volition.
Frances has sacrificed her own passions to make it work with Miles, and in return, she wants nothing but to have a loving husband and to be appreciated for her being the giving, nurturing person in his life. Miles' response to having wronged her with careless and abusive behavior is to do that which he would any other person in his life -- to buy her loyalty and smooth over indiscretions with gifts. And Miles' additional reaction to not being able to be the kind of man Frances needs is to rely only on himself, "self-medicating" with a potentially disastrous cocktail of coke, alcohol, and prescription pain medication for a degenerative hip condition that made it painful for him to walk.
There are several allusions to the plight of Miles Davis to that of a boxer, a fighter who needs to get that edge back, that hunger, to make him a success again. He's been too long out of the arena to know what to do anymore, seeing that hunger in other up-and-comers to contrast where he once was in his career, and where he has devolved. It should come as no surprise that the climax of the film is sparked by a confrontation in the middle of a boxing match, which puts Miles Davis toe to toe with his main nemesis, a sly talent agent (Stuhlbarg, Trumbo) who is desperately vowing to take control of his music for his own ends, causing the down-and-out artist to spring to life again to fight for something that, ironically, would not have had much value to others, but means the world to him. He's fighting for his life -- his essence.
In many respects, Miles Ahead reminds me of another fictionalized account of an artist of renown influence, the interpretation of the life of comedian Richard Pryor in Jojo Dancer Your Life is Calling, another film that struggles to maintain a tone, and yet yields so many interesting takes on the life of someone once at the top of their creative peak, struggling to maintain their own voice amid the many influences that threaten to stifle the ingenuity that got them to that peak in the first place. Cheadle takes quite a few risks, some of them paying off, other not as much, but Miles Ahead remains an interesting impressionist take on the essence of Miles Davis, who would rather use his tight lips to let the trumpet say what his mouth would rather not, to make it worthwhile for viewers who don't mind the heaping helping of creative license employed in getting to the root of the matter on one of the most troubled, but most brilliant of artists in any medium in the 20th century, or, as the film suggests in its colorful, concert performance finale, to the current day and beyond. Like improvisational jazz, it's an acquired taste, and while Cheadle isn't quite to cinema what Miles is to music, it's hard to disrespect a man for trying to, literally and figuratively, blow his own horn.
©2016 Vince Leo