MILES AHEAD (USA/15A/100mins)

Directed by Don Cheadle. Starring Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michael Stuhlbarg, Keith Stanfield, Austin Lyon, Nina Smilow, Christina Karis.

THE PLOT: We first meet Miles (Cheadle) during his Howard Hughes years, the music legend having retired from music in 1975 for almost five years. Trying to coax him out of his shell is freelance journalist Dave Brill, who gets his foot in the door by pretending to be writing up a Rolling Stone cover story. Miles is a recluse, and a junkie, and it’s only when a cheque from Columbia fails to materialise does he take a ride with this cuckoo who’s barged in on his nest. Columbia want the reel-to-reel of new music Miles has been working on. Miles just wants to be left alone, to get stoned, and maybe even work on that music.

What follows is akin to, fittingly enough, a stoned Raymond Chandler thriller, as that precious reel-to-reel is stolen out from under the nose of a thief, sparking off a gun-toting game of tag across the city.

THE VERDICT: If Frank Zappa argued that writing about music is akin to dancing about architecture, making movies about music must be synchronized swimming about prime mortgages. It rarely makes much sense, especially when actual footage of those being portrayed exists.

Has anyone ever played Elvis convincingly? Or The Beatles? More recent examples Jimi: All Is By My Side (2003) and Get On Up (2014) – about Hendrix and James Brown, respectively – were brave, unflashy attempts to look behind the curtain a little, but neither came anywhere near the real thing. And the same can be said for Miles Ahead.

The directorial debut of its leading man, Cheadle was pretty much the chosen one, as far as the Miles Davis family were concerned. And he certainly walks the pimp-ass walk, and talks the raspy talk. Cheadle goes full Bitches Brew on the edit here too, Miles Ahead often jumping from timeframe to timeframe, whilst the music jumps from early jazz and be-bop Miles to the mad jazz-funk concoctions that brought him a whole new audience in the years before his retirement.

One of those films where the soundtrack – full of Miles beauties alongside some dialogue from the film – gives you the bigger kick.

RATING: 3/5
REVIEW BY PAUL BYRNE

WATCH THE TRAILER

MILES AHEAD REVIEW
3.0The Chosen One
  • filmbuff2011

    After spending over 30 years acting, Don Cheadle has turned his eye to directing. He makes a moderately promising debut with Miles Ahead, a take on the great jazz musician Miles Davis.

    Miles (Cheadle) is a recluse, the ‘Howard Hughes of music’. Living alone in his house, which is scattered with bottles and the wreckage of his former marriage to Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi). It’s at this point that Rolling Stone journalist Dave (Ewan McGregor) turns up on his door, hearing that he’s got a new tape in the works. He therefore wants to write his comeback story. He gets a punch in the face for it. Contracted to Columbia Records, Miles is reluctant to give his music over to company man Harper (Michael Stuhlbarg). They may have paid for it, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to get it. An attempt to steal the tape leads to Miles and Dave going on a chase to retrieve it and protect Miles’ creative instincts. Can the former great musician make a comeback… or is he just a has-been?

    Miles Ahead begins with Miles on camera with an offscreen Dave asking him questions. As he says, if you’re going to tell a story, then come with some attitude, man. He then picks up his trumpet and the story begins. Cheadle is literally letting Miles play his own trumpet, i.e. his story. It’s a subjective viewpoint which is different to the usually reverent objective biopic. It’s refreshing for a change and appropriate to this character. Miles Davis was certainly one cool cat and that definitely comes across in the film. Cheadle, speaking in a hushed but guarded tone throughout, really captures the couldn’t-care-less attitude of Miles. If there is one thing that he cares about it, it’s the music. It’s not jazz, but social music as he calls it. McGregor and Stuhlbarg provide good support and offer varying perspectives on the man himself – hostile to the press and his own bosses, with a wary view of anyone involved with the music industry.

    Is the film as daring as the trailer suggests though? Not really. It’s essentially structured around one straightforward idea – that of the missing record that might hold the key to Miles’ comeback. It’s just about enough to keep the plot moving for 100 minutes, but a stronger film wouldn’t need to rely on such a MacGuffin. The screenplay, written by Cheadle along with Steven Baigelman, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson certainly gets the attitude and talent of the character. However, we don’t really get to know Miles Davis as much as we’d like to. It’s just a bit too light when the story could use some beefing up. However, Miles Ahead is a reasonably good film which shows a good eye for detail from Cheadle. Stay for the end credits for some great social music, which feature the now nearly 90-year-old Davis playing with Cheadle. ***

  • emerb

    Cheadle makes his feature directorial debut with this jazzy script, “Miles Ahead”, apparently when his nephew suggested the project to him. It is co-written with Steven Baigelman, a collaborator on the 2014 James Brown biopic “Get on Up.” The film takes a look at the life and music of the American jazz musician and trumpet God, Miles Davis, including the idea that Davis could be considered a musical gangster. Davis was a flawed figure who indulged in every bad habit around at the time but also produced some of the most electric music of the century. Cheadle, with his raspy whisper, colourful clothes, oversized sunglasses,
    blingy jewellery and unkempt afro absolutely inhabits the character. He perfectly captures the essence of Davis, giving a tremendous performance – convincing, funny, repulsive and magnetic. He shows us both his creative brilliance in recording sessions as well as his selfish, unruly and volatile personal life. His antics find him scoring coke in a Columbia University dorm room and pointing a gun at anyone who threatens his sense of control. Emayatzy Corinealdi stars as Frances Taylor, the Broadway and London stage star whom Davis falls for and she steals every scene in which she appears. She really nails the emotion, beginning with that flirtatious introduction when they first meet to her devastation when she finds herself in an abusive marriage with a philandering drug addict.

    “Miles Ahead” is set in the late seventies, during the five-year window where Davis stopped performing, and was living in virtual seclusion in New York. Taking 1979 as the starting point, we meet an eccentric Davis hobbling around in a robe with a bad hip, drinking and with too many drugs in his system. One day a hungry music journalist appears on the scene (a fictional character played by Ewan McGregor), eager to tell Davis’ story. Davis responds by punching him in the nose, then slamming the door in his face. But the reporter manages to weasel his way into the musician’s confidence, and somehow he becomes Miles’
    hapless sidekick, accompanying him on some dubious missions and often getting
    beaten up. They score cocaine, meet with record company executives and a main plot thread of “Miles Ahead” concerns the pursuit of some stolen master session tapes said to contain perhaps the best work ever done by Davis. It becomes chaotic as they drive around New York to track down the stolen material and it culminates in a shooting at a boxing match while we watch a young version of Davis playing trumpet in the ring.

    Throughout the film, we dip in and out of the past and get a handful of flashbacks to Davis’ earlier career in the 1940s where he was clean-cut and dapper but still prone to violent outbursts. Most of these scenes centre on his courtship and ultimately doomed marriage to dancer Frances Taylor. The temperamental man coerced Frances into quitting her career and he obsesses over her, even as he ruins their romance with a series of infidelities.

    “Miles Ahead” is erratic, unpredictable, wild and yet intriguing. Admittedly, the film works at some points and not others. Sometimes the movie feels addled and confused with characters popping in and out and bizarre plot diversions, such as when the fight over a tape of unreleased music becomes a car chase. This rather fragmented, meandering and loopy nature of the film didn’t wholly appeal to me. I found it much more interesting when Davis is looking back on his tumultuous romance with his first wife. It’s worth noting that Cheadle the director
    doesn’t shy away from Davis’ ugly side, including his violent outbursts, his womanizing, his heavy drug habit and his self-destructive tendencies. One of the reasons that it does work is thanks to Cheadle’s Oscar worthy performance. He learned to play trumpet so he could more effectively mimic Davis’ style, and he looks every inch the jazz legend in the performance and recording scenes. A film with mixed results but kudos to Cheadle as both the director and central character.