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Sundance 2016: ‘Miles Ahead’ is Only Halfway There

Miles Ahead
Written by Don Cheadle and Steven Baigelman
Directed by Don Cheadle
U.S., 2016

Miles Ahead is a film that is divided in half in both structure and quality. On one hand, you have Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) during an extended hiatus from recording music wallowing in self-pity and drugs when he falls in with a nobody writer named Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), and a set of circumstances set the two off on a madcap, drug-fueled romp across town to find a session tape of Miles that has been stolen. Then on the other hand, you have the more traditional and tired approach to the music biopic that Miles Ahead will pause itself to flash back to about the romance between himself and Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), and the disintegration of their relationship.

Don Cheadle adopts the rasp and wisecracking wit of Davis well. You can see the sparks of artistry and genius ticking inside his mind in the music scenes, but later in life Cheadle puts a lot of sorrow behind Davis’s eyes as he confronts the possibility that his days of being king may be over. Consider the scene where he watches Junior bust out an incredible trumpet solo. Davis moves his fingers in the air along with the tune, trying to keep up, but discovers that he can’t. In this moment he sees that his time is over, and Junior’s may be the next, and it’s a flood of emotion that Cheadle keeps just behind himself, guarded from others.

Ewan McGregor’s natural boyish charm lends itself nicely to Dave Brill, his exuberance and bewilderment bouncing off of Cheadle’s un-phasable wit nicely. Lakeith Lee Stanfield continues to prove his worth as one of his generations most exciting talents as Junior, bringing an authentic sense of tragedy to a sidelines character. Michael Stuhlbarg is a good addition to any cast, and enjoyably sleazes it up as a slimy record executive that steals the session tape.

There’s enough of a mythical quality about Miles Davis that you don’t have to stick to the facts to make me care. You want to tell me that sometime during the 70s he and some nobody writer went on a drug-fueled journey to get back a session tape of Davis’s? I’ll believe it. Even more so, this sort of narrative is a fresh break from normative biopic storytelling that Miles Ahead pulls off with zest. It’s a borderline buddy comedy, with Cheadle and McGregor playing off each other, and a unique way to approach a biopic. Cheadle’s direction is wild and kinetic, the editing whip-crack. There’s an electrical energy that propels the film in this plotline that feels absent when Cheadle flashes back to tired biopic clichés and tropes.

Emayatzy Corinealdi is certainly a great performer who can hold her own against the likes of Cheadle, but the role of Frances is one that’s only used to go through the same tired “troubled genius” tropes that we’ve seen in just about every other music biopic. Troubled genius falls in love. Troubled genius becomes addicted to drugs. Troubled genius cheats on wife. Troubled genius commits spousal abuse. While it’s important to acknowledge the flaws of Davis, simply retreading them in the ways that so many other films have before just makes for a middle of the road film. You could have cut out these entire portions, and just kept the film focused on Miles and Dave’s chase for the tape, and actually gained a lot more momentum, originality and drive. Miles didn’t play by anybody else’s rules, so why should a film about him feel beholden to a checklist of biopic pitfalls?


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