Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle in Miles Ahead. (Ster-Kinekor)
Don Cheadle in Miles Ahead. (Ster-Kinekor)

What it's about:

Miles Davis was an American jazz legend and lauded as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. This music biopic explores Davis's life and music, focussing on the latter part of his expansive career in the 1970s, when the hard-pressed jazz trumpeter tried to recover a new session tape from music producers.

What we thought:

Many biopics about legendary musicians have a clear-cut formula – start with their childhood and end with their death, focusing more on their personal lives than their music. Don Cheadle decidedly went a different route with Miles Davis, one of the most iconic jazz players ever who drastically shaped the genre and gained massive mainstream success. Although the main plot is made up, with a couple of true facts sprinkled in, and the timeline is more of an ‘interpretation’, Cheadle wasn’t after the facts of Davis’ life and career. The main focus was on the music itself, brought to life by Davis’ eccentric behaviour and the emotional out-of-control spiral that is his life. His music was about capturing these improvised moments, and Cheadle did the same with this film.

A down-and-out Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) has hidden himself from the world for five years, struggling with the memories of a failed marriage, pain and drug abuse while working on a new session tape, which his label company desperately want to get their hands on. A reporter (Ewan McGregor) from the Rolling Stone enters his life, and the two become unlikely partners when a rogue music agent steals his session tape from his house. 

Jazz, or ‘social music’ as Davis refers to it, has never really been an interest of mine, and before this film I had not known much about Davis and his contributions to the music industry. However, Cheadle created a film that introduced the iconic trumpeter to an uninformed audience, and the visual interpretation of his music makes you feel like you understand it. This style is wholly unique to the Davis subject matter, and would not have worked with any other type of biopic. Although appearing disjointed at first, Cheadle used Davis’ music to weave all the characters and stories together, combining past and present in a kind of stream-of-consciousness format. 

The film does not shy away from Davis’ many flaws, and his marriage to dancer Frances Taylor, played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, is both beautiful and sad as it highlights the domestic abuse and cheating she endured. These memories are based on truth, and the flashbacks are the most coherent parts in the film, with shots framed to mimic real photos from Davis’ earlier days. His regret of how he treated her is also real, revealed in a biographical book that the film heavily draws from, and highlights the emotional turmoil behind his music.

Cheadle, who wrote, directed and starred in the film, learnt to play the trumpet for three years as preparation for this film, and although I’m not an expert he appeared to do an exceptional job. His dedication shines throughout the whole film, and luckily his passion wasn’t misplaced as the style is an extremely risky endeavour. His sidekick in the film, McGregor, was used as a crutch for the madness in the film, a character that directs the music through the maze of Davis’ mind. It didn’t require a lot of talent to play it, and could’ve been played by anyone else really, but McGregor does a decent enough job. Also, longhaired McGregor is a pretty McGregor. 

Miles Ahead puts the art in art film, and cinephiles and music aficionados will devour this film with a critical eye and a hungry ear. The entire score was from Davis’ original recordings, and it felt like you got to the heart of what he was really about. Although the main events in the film didn’t really happen, there was more truth in it than any other biopic’s factual storytelling. 

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