Miles Ahead full movie review - "Miles Ahead" is just that when you compare it against most recent biopics.
Sometimes the timing of a motion picture's release is sadly ironic. It was the day after Prince died that the Miles Davis biopic "Miles Ahead" (R, 1:40) expanded to more theaters and arrived in my area.
The irony is clear if you know that music experts list Miles Davis as one of the main influences on Prince. Going further, Wikipedia.com says "Prince has been compared with jazz great Miles Davis in regard to the artistic changes throughout his career." That, however, is just one example of Davis' wide-reaching and enduring influence. According to Wikipedia, "The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia" sums up Davis' importance this way: "Miles Davis played a crucial and inevitably controversial role in every major development in jazz since the mid-'40s, and no other jazz musician has had so profound an effect on rock. Miles Davis was the most widely recognized jazz musician of his era, an outspoken social critic and an arbiter of style?in attitude and fashion?as well as music". Just don't call it "jazz" in front of Davis.
The movie opens with an interviewer referring to Davis' music as jazz, and Davis takes exception. He calls jazz a made-up word and labels his work "social music", then directs the unseen interviewer to do the same. Davis then criticizes the interviewer's recorded intro to his article as "cheesy", and uses some other words that we won't mention. The interviewer then asks Davis how he would tell his own story. Without saying a word, Davis picks up the trumpet that he had been cradling and begins to play. (Scene.) It's the perfect sequence to represent both the man and this movie, even though it's one of the relatively few times that we see Davis (as portrayed by Don Cheadle) play the music. There are some scenes of Davis/Cheadle playing and there's plenty of Davis' music (and Davis-inspired music) on the soundtrack, but this film is more about the man than his music. After all, Cheadle (who also wrote and directed) set his movie mostly when Davis was on a much-needed 5-year break from performing.
Similar to the Brian Wilson biopic "Love & Mercy" in 2015, "Miles Ahead" focuses on two distinct periods in the musician's life, with the latter period representing a more troubled time in his life. The early scenes shows us bits of Davis' story mostly in the late 1950s and 1960s, when he was courting and married to Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and making some of his best music (including the 1957 album which lends its name to this film). In the "present day" scenes, it's 1980 and Davis is preparing to emerge from his self-imposed musical exile. This period is depicted through a fictional story in which a "Rolling Stone" interviewer named Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) manages to spend two days with Davis.
The flashback scenes show us Davis' process for making music and chronicle his relationship with Frances (whom the interviewer calls Davis' "muse"), but the real meat on this film's bones is during that couple of days in 1980. We get to know a Miles Davis who swears at everyone, would just as soon punch a reporter than talk to him, was very much into the drug scene (especially cocaine) and would put a bullet in someone's television ? and threaten the same to anyone who crossed him. It's the focus that Cheadle wanted ? Davis' "gangster" side, which clearly influenced (and was influenced by) his music.
But the 1980 portion of the film isn't just about public displays of bad behavior. The story underlying all of that is Davis' struggle with whether he should (or would or could) make a comeback ? and his obsession with protecting a two-year-old session tape that he had stashed in his house and which attracts the attention of at least three different interested parties who want to get a hold of that tape nearly as much as Davis wants to hold onto it himself. One of those parties is Columbia Records. Another is Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), a weasley agent who is promoting a talented young trumpet player (Keith Stanfield), along with his own selfish interests, by any and all means he deems necessary.
"Miles Ahead" is a creative and highly satisfying biopic. Fictionalizing an entire episode in Davis' life, but setting that period against a background of real issues turns out to be a handy and effective technique for getting to know Davis as a person, warts and all. Dual time lines and flashbacks are not new, but the way Cheadle arranges them and how he manages transitions between them is boldly innovative. Directing his first feature, Cheadle also gives it a stronger narrative thread than in most modern biopics.
Even more impressive is Cheadle's performance. He first impressed me in 1997's "Boogie Nights", then in films such as the "Ocean's" movies, "Crash", "Hotel Rwanda", "Traitor" and his more recent superhero movies. His work in "Hotel Rwanda" impressed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences enough that they nominated him for a Best Actor Oscar (in addition to Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations)? but he's really outdone himself this time. While pulling triple duty on this film, he loses himself in this role, enabling us to find Miles Davis. The supporting cast is outstanding, especially Stuhlbarg who has been quietly doing outstanding chameleon-like character work over the past decade, including the 2015 films "Pawn Sacrifice", "Steve Jobs" and "Trumbo". This is another actor who deserves some serious recognition. Between its gutsy, creative and effective story-telling and its spectacular performances, this film is miles ahead of most recent big-screen biopics and is award-worthy on many levels, especially when it comes to the performances. "A"