|Don Cheadle as Miles Davis. Sony Pictures Classics|
(Directed by Don Cheadle. Sony Pictures Classics. Film review by Dan Bergsagel)
“I don’t like that word – jazz”. For a film about one of the most celebrated jazz musicians of all time, this seems a bold start. But for Miles Davis, it certainly wasn’t out of character.
Few musical careers came with as much change and controversy as his; as biopics go, this could easily have been an overly long musical and emotional challenge. To this end Don Cheadle’s directorial approach – set over a chaotic two-day period of Davis’ 1979 ‘retirement’ – was perhaps pragmatic, but also refreshing in a film genre that often takes itself very seriously.
Miles Ahead is woven from a drug and violence fuelled 1979 fabric. The story begins with persistent and dorky Rolling Stone journalist Dave (Ewan McGregor) trying to get Davis’s comeback story. It quickly descends into farce, with caricatured sleazy record producers, drug pick-ups from college students, bungled robberies and trash-can sweeping car chases with guns brandished willy-nilly throughout. Throughout the action we’re treated to intense flashback threads tracing through his 50s and 60s heydays as he slips in and out of sanity/consciousness. The flashbacks take us through key moments in his musical, political and emotional development: sessions with Wayne Shorter or Bill Evans, being arrested outside Birdland nightclub, meeting his wife of 10 years Frances Taylor (enthrallingly played by Emayatzy Corinealdi ). The present day sequences are unashamedly silly, and the historic flashbacks are unashamedly loose with the truth.
|Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances Taylor Davis. Sony Pictures Classics|
Curiously this lack of fidelity is anything but an impediment – the story is essentially unimportant. Whether Miles Davis did or did not call a radio DJ to heckle him and request he play Solea is really by the by. Whether he spent two days chasing a stolen session tape around town is irrelevant. Instead the 1979 sequences simply provide an opportunity to build Davis’ quite period character: a mercurial collapsed celebrity struggling to deal with the consequences of his previous excesses.
The flashbacks provide context and form the historical meat of a biopic. They add depth to the present-day Davis mess, with scenes of domestic violence, love and loss. Cheadle’s representation is engaging, likeable, and at times uncanny – his expressions switching from dispassionate disdain to immense melancholy when mixing a generally confrontational attitude with the passions of a man fascinated by boxing, composition and women. Frances looms prominent, as the embodiment of his shortcomings as a husband and a person. Crucially for a Davis biopic, the flashbacks provide the cherished moments for the music fans in the audience who want to see snippets of his great diverse career – the cool jazz of the nightclub sets, or the arrangements with Gil Evans.
The cinematography is atmospheric: disorienting tight camera angles leaping from hand, to jaw to smouldering cigarette of the opening scene; the classic low-level view of a car chase; the deep monochrome contrasts between gleaming brass and the dark smoky corners of a club. For such a musical film, diegetic sounds are everywhere to smooth transitions seamlessly when cutting between decades.
Cheadle’s most visible directorial statement was the constant undercurrent of pugilism. The relationship between jazz and boxing appears as a motif throughout, from shadow boxing spikes spliced with the jab of a finger on the buttons of his reel-to-reel at the beginning, the grand finale taking place at a fight with the boxers replaced by a Davis ensemble blowing in the ring. While Davis’ playing style may seem less suited to boxing then the fast past be-bop of Charlie Parker before him, or the high-energy sheets of sound of his long-term collaborator John Coltrane, the relationship sticks true to his real love for the sport, and the pivotal role that it played in his life.
At times Miles Ahead takes the slapstick too far, and while working heavily on his 70s erratic personality Cheadle may have gone too easy on his less-love-able past, but it is clear that this was a film made with a real passion. He portrays a true giant of 20th century music in an accessible, engaging light. And the soundtrack isn’t half bad, either.