Film Review: Miles Ahead

Embracing the role of jazz great Miles Davis, actor Don Cheadle bites off a lot in what is also his debut effort as co-writer/director.
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Happily, the music soars in and permeates Miles Ahead, a film inspired by two slivers of the legendary Miles Davis’ stormy life. Director/co-writer/star Don Cheadle focuses on perhaps Davis’ most rewarding marriage (among several) to dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and his rise to stardom as a music arranger and great trumpeter, then jumps ahead to five years in the late 1970s when Davis’ career turns south—the result of a physical ailment, too many drugs and painkillers, and certainly anger (extreme or at least misplaced) as a result of a dispute with his CBS Records label. The downfall, though temporary as Davis will get his mojo back (just hinted at here in a hoppin’ orchestral epilogue), has also rendered him a virtual recluse in his New York apartment.

Much of the film’s problem derives from the uneasy, occasionally confusing zig-zagging between these two periods. The first is a relatively sober depiction of how Davis and Frances met, fell in love and eventually married, in spite of the womanizing which would characterize and plague Davis' entire career. Inevitably came the breakup.

In the second period, Davis, becoming more dissipated and reclusive, disappears from public view. He stews over the $20,000 he feels his label owes him in exchange for the session tapes he carefully guards.

Soon enters pushy, persistent Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), fiercely eager to get a Davis scoop. He tries to talk his way into Davis’ apartment, promising to do the musician’s hypothetical comeback story. Just as fiercely and even violently, Davis resists and the two tangle.

But like any good reporter, Braden knows how to manipulate. He becomes Davis’ driver as they go to CBS to get the money allegedly owed and make trips to a coke dealer acquaintance of Braden’s to get what Davis also wants. Braden ultimately works his way to that hidden session tape.

At CBS they encounter slimy producer Harper (Michael Stuhlbarg, on-target) and his young protégé Junior (Lakeith Lee Stanfield), a talented trumpeter. Davis’ dispute with CBS isn’t eased, but the stalemate motivates both Braden and Harper to get their hands on the tape (a variation on Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, as it is secondary to all the fighting, chasing and hoped-for suspense it generates).

Woven into this manic part of the film are the more gentle, romantic and then tumultuous elements of the Davis-Taylor period, including a shameful episode when Davis is arrested and thrown in jail after the cops pick him up outside the club where he is on a break from performing, for no reason but their prejudice.

Cheadle makes much of Davis’ raspy voice (too much smoke of some kind, no doubt) and delivers a fine performance flawed only by his largely unappealing character. Also damaging the film is its low budget, as Cincinnati was opted as the location instead of the jazz capital of New York, which teems with iconic music spots and matching energy.

Except for some exterior shots of the real Manhattan, Miles Ahead appears underpopulated and doesn’t convincingly depict the clubs of the period.

But no doubt for the money spent Cheadle got what he could on the screen. In spite of films like the recent Whiplash or the classic Sweet Smell of Success, jazz as backdrop hasn’t had an easy time on the big screen. As both those films proved, it takes a hero who fascinates and somehow appeals to make that tricky cinematic session work.

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