Miles Ahead: Don Cheadle’s Biopic of Legendary Musician Miles Davis

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Miles Ahead, actor Don Cheadle’s feature directing debut, leaves a lot to be desired, despite its honorable intent to illuminate the man behind the legendary jazz musician that Miles Davis was.

It’s hard to believe that the subject has not been tackled by Hollywood before as it is ripe with displays of real genius—and rage, drugs, violence, and madness too.

The new film, which clearly is Cheadle labor of love) is named after one of the greatest albums ever made by one of history’s most influential musicians.

 

I saw Miles Ahead last year at its world premiere at the 2015 New York Film Fest, where it served as the prestigious center-piece.  The reception of both critics and the lay public was lukewarm, to say the least, and I expect the same response when it is released theatrically.

miles_ahead_6_cheadleLacking a distinct point of view (an arc) and suffering from a fatefully fictionalized plot, Miles Ahead, co-written by Cheadle and Steven Baigelman, unfolds as a trashy, in moments even preposterous biopic, in which crucial events and personalities are omitted—for no apparent reason or dramatic logic.

Unlike Bird, Clint Eastwood’ compelling film about Charlie Parker (well played by Forest Whitaker), Cheadle’s narrative is fragmented, jumping in time and place, presumably in order to make the film more interesting or more complex.  But end result is a messy, confusing and shallow text that suffers from both of what Cheadle has selected to included–and what he has omitted, by accident or design.

As played by Cheadle, who looks like his hero, Miles Davis comes across as temperamentally volatile, drug-addicted, gun-carrying, wife-beating man, given to burts of anger and violence.  Watching this uneven film, you wonder when did he have the time and energy to develop his considerable talents, hon his skills, give numerous live performances, and made terrific record albums to great acclaim.

The icture’s main problem is its structural device, which is both old-fashioned and uninteresting, focusing on an imaginary writer for Rolling Stone, played by the ever-likable Ewan McGregor, who breaks into Davis’ house to collect information and later on becomes his chauffeur after introducing the broke musician to drug dealers.

miles_ahead_5_cheadleAside from some flashbacks, most of the action takes place during a five-year hiatus in the late 1970s, when Davis’ career was in severe decline; in fact, it seemed over. We observe Davis planning a comeback between addictions to various drugss, first heroin and cocaine, and later on, prescribed methadone.

Living a reclusive life in his apartment on West 77 Street (my old neighborhood in NYC when I was a student at Columbia), he engages in wild sex parties and drug consumption.  According to the film, Davis loved clothes and guns, which he displayed in public, often threatening fellow musicians and even executives at Columbia Records, some of whom are depicted as criminals. There is no detailed chronicle of Columbia’s George Avakian and John Hammond, who were instrumental in catapulting Davis to stardom and then nurturing and sustaining his fragmented but spectacular career

Sins of omission: There is no mention of the actress Cicely Tyson, a stabilizing force in Davis’ turbulent private life, who was married to him. Instead, the various wives and lovers in his file have been joined into one fictional composite character, Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi), who gives up her own dancing career for him.  In reality, Frances was his first wife, but the action is set in 1979, and her marriage to Davis ended years earlier.

miles_ahead_4_mcgregorRegrettably, there are only cameo appearances by actors who lay Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Gil Evans, who actually arranged for the most significant of Davis recording sessions, and as such deserve greater space in the picture. And we are eager to know more about his interactions with Dizzy Gillespie and John coltrane.

Who is the movie made for? I doubts if Davis; multitude of international fans would like this biopic (if they bother to see it), and the movie is not good enough to arouse the interest of viewers of younger generations and initiate them into his glorious music.