Monday, April 18, 2016

A Reel Review: MILES AHEAD

Telling the real-life story of a person in feature film tends to come off as a where-are-they-now TV special, or even a Wikipedia entry where the important events of a life are checked off. For first-time director Don Cheadle, telling the story of legendary jazz musician Miles Davis required a different approach…an approach which much like the music of Davis, does its own thing while not caring if we like it or not.

In the late 1970’s, Miles Davis (Cheadle) hasn’t produced an album in five years and his holed up in his apartment surrounded by drugs and booze, when he is visited by Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), a reporter looking to write Davis’ comeback story…a comeback which Davis isn’t ready to make. Meanwhile, sleazy record executive Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg) plots to steal from Davis home a tape full of new recordings no one has heard yet…

Seemingly not content with the standard formula for the music biopic, director Don Cheadle, who also co-wrote the screenplay, instead focuses on a three-day blitz in Davis’ life during his five-year absence from the world…with flashbacks here and there to at least explain how Davis got to the point where he didn’t want to make music any longer. It’s an honorable approach and for the most part works, but the un-necessary touch of Davis telling the story himself is where MILES AHEAD loses some ground. Set in the framework of Davis telling the movie’s story to Braden, Davis says early on, “if you’re going to tell a story, tell it with some attitude”. It’s Cheadle speaking directly to the audience and letting us know that the film in front of us is an embellishment of the facts…as Davis and Braden go off on a mission to recover the stolen tape which leads to car chases, gunfights, fistfights, drug deals, and murder.

Cheadle lets his movie evolve into a buddy-cop flick, as Davis and Braden, neither of which trust each other, go from one sticky situation to another where noses are broken and bullets go flying. It’s a clever genre mash-up and gives the film the grounding that it needs. Cheadle also finds time to let Davis explore the torture that creativity can bring, and exactly what fame tends to be and not be. There’s some excellent work being done under the surface, and it’s only the outrageous situations that the players find themselves in which distracts from it.

The film is a technical masterpiece. It has a grainy and dark look to it which makes it feel like a film which was shot on 1970’s film-stock; it’s a very authentic vibe which is very effective. There are some clever transitions from the 1970’s to the 1950’s in which Davis’ backstory is explored…specifically his failed marriage and planting roots towards his eventual substance-abuse issues. The musical performances are outstanding, and Davis’ actual music is always heard in the soundtrack during scenes.

Don Cheadle is outstanding as Miles Davis. Speaking with Davis’ raspy voice which sounds like a cinderblock dragged across an ashtray, he is a dead-ringer in sound and appearance. Ewan McGregor is a blast as the journalist who is in a situation that he is no way prepared for, and Michael Stuhlbarg comes off as a great villain. Emayatzy Corinealdi, who plays Davis’ wife Frances, is beautiful on-screen and is a great foil to Cheadle’s violate Miles Davis.

The movie ends with a loop back to the story-telling by Davis, and reminds us that the entire film we have just seen is a kinda-sorta made-up story…with perhaps 10% of the overall film hitting the actual facts; it’s almost as frustrating as having a main character waking up at the end revealing that the entire film had been a dream. There is still a lot to enjoy in MILES AHEAD, as Cheadle’s amazing performance and masterful directing are very worthwhile, but the non-traditional approach may be off-putting for musical purists…and for as much as MILES DAVIS shoots for, we don’t really get a sense of the impact the real-life Miles Davis made on the world. There is commendable effort here, but one can’t help but to wonder how much more accessible and believable it would have been if it stayed a little more traditional.


1 comment:

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