Star and director Don Cheadle has gone out his way to ensure that we all are fully aware that "Miles Ahead" is not a biopic.
It’s not a biopic, if I may reiterate, and the burden of expectation that comes along with that particular classification, is lifted. Cheadle essentially gave himself license to tell the story that he wanted to tell (one that isn’t entirely interested in fact, which isn’t a problem I should emphasize), exactly the way he wanted to tell it (an experiment, if you will). I was fully aware of all of that before going into Saturday evening’s screening, simultaneously excited and anxious. So much has been written about the film, but so little of that writing has been revelatory as Cheadle has kept much of his plan and process mostly concealed (unlike the contrasting transparency embraced by many-a studio project in an age in which social media and shorter attention spans demand a constant flow of information, no matter how inconsequential). Thus I had little to grasp onto in terms of expectations of the film. I just knew that I trusted Don Cheadle, if only for the respect I have for his past work, as well as what I know of him beyond the business (what he’s revealed to us anyway, about his person and character), and his well-documented love and respect for the man whose life (although not entirely) and craft (which Cheadle himself spent years learning) he would choose as a subject for his feature film directorial debut.
If I did have one expectation it would be that I was more than prepped for something entirely unconventional, given what Cheadle previously shared about the film – essentially, a film that Miles Davis himself would make, employing the organic, experimental approach he used in creating some of his best music; notably an album like "Bitches Brew," which was recorded in just three days. The short version of that story goes… without much notice, nor any idea of what they were going to be crafting, Davis summoned the musicians who would contribute to that landmark compilation album (legends in their own respective rights like Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, and others), and while in the recording studio, they were given very few instructions from Davis – mostly suggestions as to mood and tone, with his intent being to force the musicians to pay very close attention to one another, to their own performances, and to Davis’ cues, all of which could change at any moment, without notice. That’s almost exactly how I imagined this film would maybe be put together, which would give it, like "Bitches Brew," a loose, improvisational, unconventional style. Like Davis, a rejection of the traditional (jazz / filmmaking) in favor of a more aggressive, free-form and explosive approach.
And you can see Cheadle going for that in "Miles Ahead," but I’d argue not quite enough. I suppose he still may have been constrained by the fact that he needed to create something that could sell a few tickets, and not be painted with the sometimes dreaded "intellectual cinema" (read: inaccessible) brush, and be relegated entirely to the so-called art-house. So we are presented with what you’d call a more conventional, commercial narrative, running through the entire feature (a fictional crime caper that sees Davis teaming up with an ambitious journalist to track down a much-coveted stolen tape of a recording session) – a story that takes place over the course of 2 days, in 1979, before Davis would begin his comeback. Interwoven throughout are flashbacks, or the “B story” as Cheadle has called it, which reflects to 1956-66, and parallels Davis’ relationship with his first wife, dancer Frances Taylor Davis (much of it fact) – the love of his life, "the one that got away" (and with good reason, which we get a taste of in the film).
In a most simplistic summary, that’s really what we have here – a conventional narrative with flashbacks intercut throughout.
The interspersing of the various flashbacks are where the "experimenting" happens. They aren’t always straightforward, as in a close-up shot of a face, looking intently off into some distance, as a transition of some kind (a fade-in, a straight cut, etc) takes us back to whatever time, place, moment the character in question is recalling; and we’re there. In "Miles Ahead," they are at times abrupt, or in rhythm with whatever the action is in the scene immediately before the transition takes place (I immediately thought of Raul Ruiz’s many uses of that device in his epic adaption of Marcel Proust’s "In Search of Lost Time"), and even somewhat dreamily inventive; early in the film, for example, as Cheadle stands in an elevator, surrounded by framed posters of the covers of a few of his greatest albums from many years past (and those of other musical greats), reminding him of the person he once was, and he leans into one of the elevator walls which pushes out and opens as a door into a past moment in Davis’ life, as we, the audience walk through the door, and experience the moment (whether it’s a remembrance of a performance, a rehearsal, or memorable minutes between himself and Frances Taylor, as played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, who is absolutely lovely here, and hits all the right notes with what she’s given to do in the film, which isn’t a lot. But she’s certainly memorable). And the flashbacks aren’t always harmonious, as in they don’t correspond or have a direct connection in some way with the moments that lead to each. There’s a discordance at times between the present and the past that might be perplexing, but if Cheadle were going for impressionistic (which he’s said he wanted to), evoking an ethereal mood, dissonant "harmonies" (as in scenes) in unconventional progressions (reflecting Davis’ own state of mind and approach to his craft), then "perplexing" is certainly apt.
A hindrance, as I see it, to the film becoming conclusively impressionistic, and therefore meeting Cheadle’s (and thus the audience’s) demands, is the inclusion of a conventional main narrative – one that itself isn’t all-that engaging, to be frank. But what held my attention was Cheadle as Davis. It’s a captivating enough transformation that I was on board for much of the ride, which Cheadle, wisely, I thought, keeps to a brief 100 minutes. There’s a kind of demystification of Davis that happens in the present-day narrative, as compared to the genius that is Davis the musician, that I think even those who aren’t familiar with the man and his work, are aware of. Miles Davis. Genius musician. Untouchable. Even superhuman and god-like. He’s a legend. So there’s almost a reconciling (the man versus the legend) that some may have to do in order to settle into the film – the present-day story giving us "a man," frail, broken, with a cocaine and alcohol habit (the film appropriately doesn’t sugarcoat any of this by the way), a shadow of his former self, angry at the world, and maybe even at himself; and the flashbacks, in essence, give us "the legend" in his prime, despite some fracturing, who created the many masterpieces we love and are in awe of today.
The present-day narrative also seemingly serves as comedic relief when necessary, reminiscent of the many interracial buddy action-comedy pairings we’ve all seen on screen – in this case, Cheadle as Davis (the stern, grumpy old black guy who’s seen it all) and Ewan McGregor (the white guy who looks like he probably does live in a trailer on a beach along the Pacific Coast Highway in Los Angeles) playing an ambitious, if mendacious journalist who will do almost anything to get his story. In fact, it almost didn’t even matter that it was Miles Davis we were watching, and maybe that was intentional on Cheadle’s part. It felt like it could’ve been anyone in this particular conundrum that dominates the film, one that unexpectedly includes standoffs, shootouts, and even a car chase through what is supposed to be New York City. You watch and wonder if Davis is deserving of this depiction of him and this particular narrative. But maybe that’s the point – to present Davis in such a way that we’d connect with him, disconnected from his music, and even see ourselves in him, only to be reminded from time to time, via the flashbacks, that he was a creative savant, potentially implying that all of us can also achieve greatness. Of course this is all speculation on my part of Cheadle’s intent, based on the film that I watched, and my own digestion of it.
While all serving to entertain, and maybe act as a contrast to the more austere, fragmented flashbacks, I think I could’ve done without the crime-caper altogether. If I get the opportunity to interview Cheadle about the film, I would definitely ask him whether the script started out solely as a collection of memories and moments, but he maybe later felt the need to essentially make it more accessible to a wider audience, by including the present-day escapade with McGregor’s journalist character. I would’ve been far more immersed in a film that captures "remembrances of things past," if you will. It still would’ve met his non-biopic requirements, creating what I think could’ve been an even more ambitious work, leaping around through time, as Davis, being interviewed at the very start of the film, on the cusp of a comeback, as he tries to close gaps in time both in life and in his music, and the audience is taken on what could be quite a head trip through such an interesting life – the many memorable people he met and worked with, and how their lives and careers intersected with his own, creatively linking scenes/sequences/moments by mood, or mental association, resulting in an almost dreamlike, if seemingly discordant construction. A stream-of-consciousness on film we could say. I’d like to think that’s the kind of cinema Miles Davis would make, pushing relentlessly beyond convention, and maybe even shaking up the form as we know it. Borrowing Duke Ellington’s description of Davis as "the Picasso of jazz," the film may have been labeled obscure, or abstract, crossing a line in terms of form and structure, that may be considered even taboo when it comes to films that tell stories about celebrated public personalities. But I think, made in that style and spirit, it would’ve been more in keeping with the maestro himself.
As it is, it’s as if the film evasively exists between 2 spheres, so you don’t quite get the emotional wallop or grandness that you might be looking for in a more conventional story of a legend like Davis, and neither are you struck by the inventiveness or peculiarity in the form or structure Cheadle employs to take us inside the head of perhaps one of the most important musicians and cultural figures of the 20th Century.
But despite any misgivings I have about the film, it’s undoubtedly one of significance – a necessary work in a time when the clamor is over projects about musicians who came along decades after Davis’ peak period, who stand on his shoulders, and may not even realize it. And while it’s not a factual cradle-to-grave story, and more of a flight of fancy, and wouldn’t necessarily serve as an introduction to Miles Davis for the uninitiated, there’s enough in it to make it a worthy addition to the Miles Davis canon. And it’s truly bizarre, and even an offense that it’s one of very, very few films that can count itself as a member. In fact, given how full his life was (just consider alone the giants whose paths intersected his – Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Canonball Adderley, and others; those who mentored him, and those who played under or with him, and the many well-known musicians who would rise to prominence as members of Davis’ ensembles), there are still many films to be made about Davis’ life, each telling a story of a specific period in his musical evolution, or zooming in on the many affairs/relationships/marriages he had – Frances Taylor, Betty Davis and Cicely Tyson to name 3 (women, artists who were remarkable and noteworthy in their own right).
It’s a film that rests entirely on Cheadle’s shoulders playing Miles Davis. From his raspy whisper, to his mannerisms, ticks and mercurial nature, as well as his embracing of an evolving style, Cheadle, for the most part, delivers. Very early in the film, the audience will have to decide whether or not they *believe* him, because your appreciation for the rest of the film lies almost solely on whatever decision you make from those very first frames, because, as you’d expect, he’s in practically every single scene. His physical embodiment of Davis coalesces with the rest of the film, so you’re not distracted by it (some of the situations that Cheadle puts Davis in within the main narrative can be, however). It’s not a caricature, which I think any depiction of Davis could border on (especially his latter years), if not handled by the right battle-scarred actor. In short, it works. I just can’t say with certainty that he’s a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.
A supporting cast comprised of a mix of more than capable veteran and upcoming thespians like the aforementioned winsome Corinealdi as Frances Taylor (her scenes with Cheadle are some of the most memorable in the film), and McGregor, the journalist of dubious character, as well as Keith Stanfield as a young, naive would-be John Coltrane-esque protégé, all hit the right notes with their performances, and are thus believable. Even among the more peripheral players, there isn’t what I’d call a weak link in the bunch.
But, again, it’s Cheadle’s show all the way.
Fans of Davis’ music should relish every single onscreen performance of familiar Davis tracks; whether scenes of Cheadle as Davis workshopping with his various ensembles, each at different past periods, or whether actual onstage performances. I caught myself occasionally accordantly tapping my feet, and even snapping my fingers and bobbing my head during each session; and once I got back to my apartment, I listened to "Kind of Blue" and "Sketches of Spain" for the rest of the evening, while contemplating what I’d just screened, trying to find the right words to paint a proper picture of the film for those who would be reading this review.
Lensing by veteran DP Roberto Schaefer is more than adequate – lush when necessary, stark otherwise, and all else between – and non-intrusive.
Also editing by John Axelrad is clean, with overall pacing, nimble, for the 100-minute picture, which is littered with a few of Davis’ favorite things, like his love of boxing – notably his appreciation for a man he saw as a kind of spiritual kin, Jack Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion, known for his brashness and bravado, overstepping the racial barriers that existed at the time.
It’s a film I’d like to see again, which I will indeed do whenever the next opportunity presents itself. I actually had to really think about what I felt and wanted to say about it, because I went in hoping to leave with a strong reaction to the film one way or another, but I unfortunately didn’t. And those are the hardest to write about – at least for me, especially when it’s made by artists you love and respect. So I was left wondering what my reaction would be after a second screening, a day, a week, a month, many months after having chewed on it for a little while.
As of today, "Miles Ahead" does not have an official release date; although Cheadle has said that a spring 2016 opening is eyed. But I won’t at all be surprised if Sony Picture Classics (the film’s distributor) gives it an Oscar-qualifying 1-week run some time between now and the end of the year, so that it’s in contention for the 2016 Academy Awards. How it’s received by critics and audiences alike, post its NYFF world premiere this weekend, will likely heavily influence that decision. An abundance of raves will certainly be very encouraging. I stayed clear of all critiques before I saw the film, and still haven’t read any others as I typically do. So, as of the time of this publishing, I don’t know what the consensus is thus far. But based on the fact that my Twitter feed hasn’t at all been bustling with 140-character reviews – something that usually happens during prominent film festivals like the NYFF, after a high profile film is screened – I’d gather that there isn’t hefty buzz around it.
So, in summary, it’s good enough; but given the legend that is the subject matter, and the paucity of films in which his story is central, I’d argue that it needed to be better than "good enough" – if not great!