Director: Don Cheadle
Cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor
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“If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude,” says Miles Davis (Cheadle) at the start of Miles Ahead. He isn’t kidding. Neither is this biopic.
The word “biopic”, though, has rarely seemed less appropriate. The term conjures up the image of a lengthy, exhaustive, chronological portrait of the music legend’s life. Miles Ahead keeps the legend and the music, but ditches the rest. Clocking in at 100 minutes, it’s a quick-footed number that is far from exhaustive. And chronology? It treats chronology like a walking bass – it goes all over the place.
Rather than start at the very beginning, we catch up with Cheadle’s Davis in 1979, when he’s “retired” – which is a polite way of saying he does a great impression of Howard Hughes. On his doorstep arrives Rolling Stone journalist Dave Braden (McGregor), who wants to do a story about his rumoured comeback. A few beats later and they find themselves tracking down a missing session tape that Columbia Records hopes will be his return-to-form album. Car chases, fights and threats soon follow. Did any of this actually happen? It doesn’t matter: the film is too busy having fun.
That’s very much the driving force behind Steven Baigelman and Don Cheadle’s script, which plays fast and loose with things like fact and history. But there’s depth to the melody, a quiet seriousness underneath the playful surface. The film expertly nails its period vibe without making a big deal of it, slips in a young Davis-like prodigy for Miles to face with an admirably light touch, and even subverts its buddy cop detective antics by having the white dude as the eccentric, wacky one.
McGregor and Cheadle have enjoyable chemistry, as they knock from one bizarre plot point to another – from sleazy record execs to the (real-life) incident where Davis is beaten up outside Birdland nightclub. Flashbacks punctuate these moments, maybe because Miles has been knocked out, maybe just because he’s high, but they provide a syncopated counterpoint with a melancholic air; through them, we not only glimpse Miles at the peak of his powers, but see him meet his wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), whose marriage to the musician is doomed to go off the rails.
There’s a quiet theme of loss accompanying these events, from Davis’ disappeared mojo to Frances’ sacrificed career for the sake of her neglectful husband, not to mention the lost tape at the centre of the whole heist narrative. Cheadle directs it all with composed skill – there are shots of gorgeously smoky clubs and shining, spotlit trumpets – but with the feel of someone making it up as he’s going along. He’s supported by an excellent sound team, who edit together the noises and music of past and present to immersive effect. Keyon Harrold’s trumpet solos sing with lyrical respect for the star, while Robert Glasper’s score smoothly blends in. To watch the whole piece unfold is genuinely exciting in itself.
Throughout, Cheadle is superb, delivering the kind of performance that might seem showy in a full-on biopic, but here bursts with rude, funny, sassy charisma. He’s as convincing when he’s heckling a radio station over the phone to play Sketches of Spain as he is when he’s miming on stage. It’s Don’s decision to frame his interpretation of Miles in such an idiosyncratic manner, though, that really gives it the right feel; kind of blue and effortlessly cool. A companion piece, in a way, to the unconventional Jimi Hendrix biopic, All Is by My Side, Miles Ahead finds a way to reexamine a musical genius by looking at the bits between the iconic notes. It tells its own story – and it has attitude to spare.
Miles Ahead is now available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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