Miles Ahead

June 17, 2016
Don Cheadle in 'Miles Ahead' (2015)
Don Cheadle in 'Miles Ahead' (2015)

In a week in which all the talk is about America’s bloody love affair with firearms, it’s remarkable to see three movies that show the devotion that Elvis, Hank Williams, and Miles Davis felt for their guns.

The portrayal of Miles Davis brought to us by Don Cheadle, who both directs and stars, is on another planet to the Hank Williams film. For someone who has never previously directed a movie, Cheadle is incredibly adventurous. Miles Ahead avoids the plodding procession of anecdotes from childhood to maturity to death. We focus on the late 1970s, when Miles had slumped into drug-induced creative inertia, spending his days locked away in his luxury New York apartment.

The storyline concerns a fictional Rolling Stone reporter, Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), who has heard a rumour that Miles has been recording new material, and wants to scoop an early interview. Miles is the most famous jazz trumpeter in the world but he turns out to be an angry, misanthropic personality concerned mainly about his next score. He dresses like a wealthy pimp, talks in a rasping voice, gives people the dead-eyed stare, and limps because of a degenerative hip condition. He is a hundred times more convincing than Dave, who feels like a plot device rather than a person.

There is a mysterious tape which Miles’s record company would love to get their hands on. This tape is the catalyst that drives the story forward while Cheadle dips back in time to show key moments of his subject’s life.

We focus mainly on Miles’s romance and marriage with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), whose face appears on the sleeve of the 1961 LP, Someday My Prince Will Come. Even though Frances may have been the object of Miles’s lifelong adoration, he drove her away with his rages, drug binges and casual whoring. The turning point in their relationship was probably when Miles demanded Frances give up her own career as a dancer and settle for the role of Great Man’s Wife.

This movie has been a long-term labour of love for Cheadle who practised the trumpet until he could play Miles’s music. His performance in the lead role is all heart and soul without a trace of adulation. In fact he’s followed the advice of his own script, when Miles tells Dave not to make him sound like a nice guy, growling: “if you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude.”

The unconventional nature of the film with its idiosyncratic camera angles, sudden shifts in time, and blending of action and introspection, seems to have been influenced by the rhythms of Miles’s music, which is everywhere on the soundtrack. Miles Ahead is not a seamless piece of work, but it’s a movie of great vitality, a precise portrait of a musical genius and a monster living within one skin.

Miles Ahead
Directed by Don Cheadle
Written by Don Cheadle & Steven Baigleman
Starring Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michael Stuhlbarg, Austin Lyon
USA, rated M, 101 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 18th June, 2016.