by Philip Price
The title of this latest music biopic suggests that Miles Davis was a man ahead of his time and many would agree when speaking about his musical talents, but Don Cheadle's first directorial effort, “Miles Ahead,” isn't introspective enough to put on display why this particular individual was allowed insight into music others hadn't yet tapped into, but rather it's about how Davis was very much a product of his time. In his actions and his views in his personal life Davis was very much of the state of mind that society should function a specific way, especially in regards to how he was allowed to treat the opposite sex and how they weren't allowed to treat him. One can only imagine Cheadle and screenwriter Steven Baigelman (who also worked on “Get on Up”) decided to come at Davis' story from a more personal angle due to how destructive he needed to be in order to be inspired enough to create what would become his legacy. Of course, that leaves audiences, or more appropriately Davis himself, to deal with the bigger question of what is worth more in the long run-his present prize or his potential imprint he could leave on culture? In “Miles Ahead,” Cheadle shows us how one drove the other-how life goes on for Davis long after the thrill of living is gone (one can learn a lot from John Cougar Mellencamp). What was the thrill though? The music or the indisputable love of his life, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi)? The even bigger question is does Davis ever figure this out for himself? Sure, he is now the subject of a motion picture and regarded as one of the most influential and innovative musicians of the 20th century, but how often did he think of Frances and the times they could have shared, the memories they could have potentially made while grappling with a reputation that could go either way? Miles Davis, the man, would have you believe that he didn't grapple with anything as one of his most famous quotes states, "do not fear mistakes. There are none," but it's hard to believe given Cheadle's interpretation that being one of the most influential and innovative musicians of the 20th century came with a price Davis wasn't always sure he wanted to pay.
I feel as if I know a lot of stories about a lot of musicians, but going into “Miles Ahead” I didn't know much about the life and times of Miles Davis. Whether this was an advantage or disadvantage I wasn't sure, but whatever the case one thing was for sure and that was the fact I was going to take the film on its own terms and process what it provided me unfiltered and without expectation. In the beginning of the film we find a Davis who is wallowing in self-pity, a burn out of sorts if you will. It is 1979. In 1975 one of the most prolific voices in music went silent for five years and it is at the end of this stretch that Cheadle finds an entry point into Davis' life that allows him to establish a friendship of sorts with Rolling Stone journalist Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) and thus a framing device of sorts that sets up two parallel storylines dealing with Davis' current state of perfecting his most recent recording sessions and the battle over those tapes with Columbia Records as well as his checkered past that informs where we find the musician in '79. These two parallel storylines don't restrict the story of Davis to two particular instances in his life though, but instead function as a jumping off point for what largely feels like an organic film-much like the way Davis always wanted his music to feel. Much of this is accomplished through the editing by John Axelrad and Kayla Emter though seeming influenced by Cheadle's vision for the project. Editing techniques are always a crucial element when discussing music biopics or biopics of any sort, especially if we're discussing a cradle to the grave look at someone's life, but in “Miles Ahead” Cheadle uses his navigation between the past and Davis' present to feed off one another as if in a relay race with itself. At times, especially early on, it feels like the film is doing little more than skimming the surface of who Davis was with funny quips and a fascinating frankness to his love of cocaine. With the assistance of both the grainy and dimly lit visual aesthetic cinematographer Roberto Schaefer establishes as well as the constant touch of "social music" playing in the background Cheadle is able to bring his feature around to a more revealing piece of art as just in his performance Cheadle is reminiscent of a Jazz-infused Howard Hughes with the actor's demeanor helping us understand why Davis had become both so reviled and revered.
If one was to ask Davis to tell them his life story as Braden does at one point in the film he would answer by saying, "I was born, moved to New York City, met some cats and made some music, did some dope and made some more music, now you're at my door." It's funny, it's straightforward, and it tells us so much about the man Davis was. In a sense, Cheadle takes note of this glib outlook Davis seemed to inherently give anything that wasn't of importance or value to him and thus makes his film equally as flighty given the script positions mystery around what happened to Frances in terms of her involvement in Davis's life and yet Cheadle decides to fast forward through some of the more important (or at least most photographed) milestones in their relationship. We get a brief glimpse at the wedding ceremony through Polaroid snapshots with Cheadle simultaneously throwing in shots of Davis with other women, multiple women-taking us from a moment of wedded bliss immediately up through the beginnings of their fallout. This fallout is naturally a catalyst of sorts for the dividing line in Davis' life as far as all that came before Frances and all that would come after, but it is in this catalyst that Cheadle finds what he needs to give us a fully realized picture of his subject without having to go into every detail of his life. In taking this route, Cheadle ultimately delivers a portrait of the important factors if not the essential ones. With this we are offered a few interesting glimpses into how Davis put together his rhythms and compositions, but the subject I want to see most in music biopics, a caveat that is often addressed too little, is again thrown by the wayside for the most part. It's easy to understand that many an artist who become notable enough to have a film made about their life were likely inherently talented, it ingrained in their DNA from the time they exited the womb, but if a movie is made about a musician I expect it to address where the passion comes from. I need to know what drives them to create. It isn't until the closing moments of “Miles Ahead” that the film really gives way to what an ear Davis had for music and specifically the type of music that takes listeners on a journey. Music with attitude, if you will and while the culmination is thrilling it also serves to be slightly underwhelming.
In essence, “Miles Ahead” is something of a buddy movie with McGregor and Cheadle playing off one another even sending them on an escapade through the city on Braden's promise of delivering the best quality cocaine in exchange for Davis' cooperating for his interview. The film then becomes something of a back and forth for the two actors with their characters attempting to figure out who's playing who. In the most present timeline in the film this leads to a series of events concerning producer Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his upcoming jazz artist, Junior (Keith Stanfield), that comes to resemble a seventies action film. It may sound a tad strange, but somehow Cheadle makes these separate styles and strings come together in a coherent enough fashion that by the end the two parallel storylines culminate quite nicely with the visuals complimenting the actions in a truly effective manner. The denouement of the film reveals a few facts and intentions that bring even more light and weight to some of the previously documented actions of Davis while revealing other aspects that audience members might have suspected, but been unsure of. And so, “Miles Ahead” may not exactly be a buddy movie, a ‘70s action film, or even a music biopic and yet it is seemingly all of those things at once. An amalgamation of delusions and abuse, of selfish, controlling, destructive behavior that led to inspiration, that led to global stardom and respect from his peers and musicians that have since followed a similar path, but undoubtedly left the titular jazz musician alone and confused for much of the time he actually existed on this planet. Only Davis will of course ever know the truth of his psychological state, but by the time the credits roll on this film about his life it culminates with a live performance that exemplifies why the man deserves to have his story told if not for the way he conducted his life, but for how that life conducted what he created.