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Miles Ahead


‘Man, knowledge is freedom and ignorance is slavery.’ Miles Davis, from Miles: The Autobiography.

The musical legend biopic has always been a tough nut to crack. Through cinematic history there have been a number of greats, with Jimmy Stewart in The Glenn Miller Story and Kurt Russell as ‘The King’ in John Carpenter’s Elvis through to Gary Busey’s star turn in The Buddy Holly Story. The genre then hit a high watermark in 2005 with director James Mangold’s Oscar-winning Johnny Cash flick Walk the Line. Such was the success of the Joaquin Phoenix-starrer, however, that we have had to suffer a very similar treatment on every musician film since, with a linear narrative duly taking us on a drearily familiar ‘rags-to-riches-to-breakdown-to-redemption-to-comeback’ journey. James Brown story Get On Up is a notable culprit. It is therefore extremely refreshing to see acclaimed actor and debut director Don Cheadle hit an unconventional beat with his blistering account of ageing ‘social music’ genius Miles Davis, himself the epitome of convention-defying grit.
The film opens with a jerky camera lensing up on a late 1970’s, flamboyantly-dressed Davis (Cheadle), talking in his renowned husky tones about his attitude to life and music, before he criticizes an unseen interviewer for laying on a phoney intro to proceedings. The audience is then taken on a wild ride in his bid to get paid the $20,000 he is owed for a new recording made for label Columbia Records, which involves a gun, a car chase, some serious drug abuse, an up-and-coming musician and his gangster of a manager. This is all expertly intercut with flashes of Davis’ back story, as Cheadle the director incorporates some lovely filmic touches often achieved in-camera with dizzying editing, which help get the viewer into the mindset of a man hopelessly hooked on cocaine reflecting on his glory days.
You get the impression the notoriously private and enigmatic Davis would have hated this exploration into his personal life just as much as his screen incarnation. But what a personal life. As chaotic, exhilarating, unpredictable, spontaneous and wildly emotional as much of the man’s famous musical musings, it’s irresistible and fascinating viewing for anyone interested in life lived on the edge.
Cheadle is mesmerizing in the role. It’s a near impossible task to portray someone with so many demons and flaws in his life, yet possessed with artistic genius and mind-boggling talent, and get it right. But instead of allowing himself to get weighed down with such a heavy burden, he soars, jumping from Davis’ famously arrogant and self-righteous attitude to a more sympathetic side he so richly delivered over the years  in films as wide-ranging as Boogie Nights and Hotel Rwanda. It’s a towering portrayal, that slyly allows the audience into an extremely complex headspace, and even feel sympathy for a man who objects to everyone he meets, dooms the great relationship of his life (to wife Francis Taylor, sensitively portrayed by Emayatzy Corinealdi), and whose pursuit of his next narcotic fix takes priority over every other aspect of his being.
The audience find their way into Davis’ life via the device of (sadly) fictional Rolling Stone reporter Dave Brill, played with typical exuberance by Ewan McGregor. Brill’s is the voice we hear interviewing Davis in the opening scene, although we later learn he has bluffed his way into getting access to the ailing star. McGregor provides a welcome counterpoint to Cheadle’s performance. His character is in way over his head, yet offers a voice of reason to the increasingly outlandish events and makes the material feel more accessible. The film may not reach a wide audience; the limited number of characters and locations are reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s made-for-TV Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, and the fictional aspects prevent us from getting too close to the real story. However, Cheadle’s assured direction will satisfy those missing Scorsese and De Palma’s 70’s-set outings, and of course the jazz-fuelled soundtrack is excellent.
Words> Roy Swansborough

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