Miles Davis was one of the great jazz innovators of the twentieth century, with a career spanning almost five decades. He was always looking ahead and never back. However, in the late ‘70’s Davis ceased producing records and retreated to seclusion. Davis spent this time dealing with many personal problems. This is the story that Miles Ahead tells. This is an effective stance to take. A biopic should not try to chronicle too much of the figure being profiled, as it then becomes a history lesson. What you need to do is take a segment of the person’s life and make a good story out of it. Miles Ahead could have fallen into the former category(there is plenty to work with) but instead we get something different. Something very different, in a good way.
Don Cheadle (who also directed the film) stars in the leading role as Miles Davis, and he just steals the show. Cheadle showcases Miles’s attitude perfectly with a good dose of energy and unpredictability. However, he’s not playing a caricature. Cheadle gets the more quiet and refined scenes down as well. Although he may come across as careless, he really does know and understand his music. This is showcased in the scenes that flashback to the Sketches of Spain sessions, when he is discussing the sound with Gil Evans and the orchestra. Overall, Cheadle is engaging and really cements himself in this role.
Ewan McGregor is here because they needed a white supporting actor. No, really, that’s the reason he’s here, they couldn’t get the okay from the studio unless they had a white sidekick. That being said, this is Ewan McGregor, so he delivers solid work. He plays off Cheadle well in a couple scenes and provides a few chuckles. He did a fine job and did not come across as too intrusive.
Cheadle also directs as well as being the main character. The film has a sort of raw feel. We get lots of sharp cuts that can sometimes catch you off guard. For example as Miles picks up his trumpet you expect to hear a trumpet noise but instead you’re treated to loud gunshots. These are especially prevalent during the transitions between periods. Speaking of, the flashback scenes use a slightly downgraded filter to make them look older and grainy. I always love this effect (also used in Ben Affleck’s Argo). It gives the scenes a unique and old timey feel. Overall, Cheadle does a unique job directing and gives the film an edgy feeling that reflects its subject.
By flashing back to the story with Miles’s somewhat difficult relationship with his first wife, Frances Taylor, we see Miles coming to terms with his past and moving on. Miles is a man who doesn’t look back (or at least tries his best to) but we find out that even innovators can be troubled by hard times in the past. After it all has effectively been played through, Miles sits down, has a smoke, and moves on.
Overall, Miles Ahead is a very effective biopic. It has a strong cast, is well directed, and chronicles a time of Miles’s life you would not expect them to. They could have just as well gone with the Gil Evans sessions, but they chose to do it different, and all the better for them. The film is a success and highly recommended to fans of both music and film. 8/10
As a side note- I would also like to touch upon the fact that I saw the film in Film Scene’s new Screening Room. This place has a bit more of a laid back, informal feeling compared to the main theatre, but it was still a fun experience. A nice touch is the tables in the back. A nice way for Film Scene to use up some dead space and offer a nice alternative theater.
Image from Milesahead.com