Sunday, 24 April 2016

Review: Miles Ahead

Miles Ahead
Cert: 15 / 100 mins / Dir. Don Cheadle / Trailer

Much like any documentary worth its salt, a well-executed biopic will take a subject you don't really know and make it captivating (at least for the run-time of the film, but ideally afterward, too). Cue Mr Don Cheadle, the (co-)writer, director and (co-)producer of Miles Ahead*1, a fittingly meandering study of American jazz musician, Miles Davis. Usually, that many credits being assigned to one person in a production (especially the lead actor) would set critical alarm bells ringing, but Cheadle commits himself completely to the role in what I can only call a transformative performance (in fact I'd be genuinely amazed if he hasn't now got stage-3 lung cancer from the number of cigarettes he smoked throughout the course of making the movie. Do they have special fake-film-fags, or something? I do hope so).

The story follows Davis in a purposely fallow period, trying (with a shambolic journalist in-tow) to recover a privately made session-tape stolen from his house by the record-label anxious to milk the cash-cow of Miles' success. Quizzing by his new biographer leads to a series of reminiscences, showing us Davis' earlier successes and the events which lead up to his self-imposed exile.

Making full use of framing devices and flashbacks, the film flits effortlessly around like the narrative equivalent of the music which serves as the foundation, but for all its time-hopping, never loses sight of the story it's telling. The thing is, I don't really speak jazz*2, but the J-word is laid to rest fairly early in proceedings, being brushed aside as an unnecessary and restrictive label*3. Truth be told, this film is far more about Miles Davis the man than Miles Davis the musician, even though his work is never dismissed or relegated. In addition to the fantastic looking 1970s setting of the central storyline, the escalating flashback sequences have a grainy quality that sets them aside visually, and places them in a separate timeframe far better than the sets or costumes could.

Although his performance is the centrepiece of the film, Miles Ahead is Cheadle flexing his directorial muscles and showing us that he's actually more powerful on the other side of the camera. That may well be due to his familiarity and enthusiasm for the subject, but it goes to show what creative-vision can bring to 'true story' film-making. Away from the considerable glare of the title-role, Emayatzy Corinealdi puts in a respectable turn as Davis' wife Frances throughout their turbulent relationship, although there's the feeling that a very different (but equally engaging) film could easily be made out of that thread (using the same cast, of course). Meanwhile, Ewan McGregor is having fun as Rolling Stone journalist Dave, even if he's effectively just a comic-foil and exposition-drawer for the larger than life Miles. The music itself is also a cast-member in its own right, but like I said, I don't really speak jazz so I'll leave that side of the film to those that do.

The longer Miles Ahead runs (it's only 100 minutes, but an exhausting 100 minutes), the more apparent it becomes that this is a meticulously assembled film, and far more than the sum of its parts.

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Well, it's got a sort of Inherent Vice vibe to it, a little.

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
For full effect, although you shouldn't lose too much by catching it at home. Be in the mood for it, though, it's not a film to doze through.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
I think it does.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Everyone concerned can be very proud of this being on their CV.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Obi-Wan Kenobi's in it.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Although really, come on. "Miles Ahead"? I know that mirrors the name of one of his albums, but it sounds like the title of a Christmas-release celebrity hardback which will be available in The Works for £3, come March.

*2 Blues, yes; jazz, no. Suspect I fear the lack of boundaries, or some-such.

*3 But again, really, come on. That's like when metal bands sniffily try to disown the label of 'metal', despite playing to metal crowds in metal venues and knowing full well they'll never be found in HMV in anything other than the metal-section.

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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