Miles Ahead: Kinda Blew, by Tyler Smith
Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead is a very strange movie to discuss. On one hand, it subverts our expectations of the musical biopic by taking an obscure period in jazz legend Miles Davis’ life and heavily fictionalizing it, to the point that it almost dips into a different genre. This is a very exciting concept, but the subversion sputters out to such a degree that I was left frustrated, primarily because, though not a standard biopic, Miles Ahead still seems to want to provide insightful commentary on Davis. It does not do this. Instead, it stands on the edge of full-fledged innovation and steps back at the last minute, choosing instead to ultimately embrace the conventions that it so badly wanted to cast off.
Taking place during a 5-year creative slump in Davis’ (Don Cheadle) career in the 1970s, the film follows an ambitious journalist (Ewan McGregor) as he befriends the reclusive musician. He does this in an attempt to get his hands on Davis’ latest recordings, which he is withholding from his record company. The recordings are stolen away from Davis by a gang of sleazy producers, down-on-their-luck musicians, and dangerous thugs, and Davis stops at nothing to get it back. The proceedings soon take on the qualities of a heist film, with the recordings acting as a sort of MacGuffin.
This is by no means a bad idea to hang a movie on. By sidestepping the biopic cliches and instead using the trappings of the heist, noir, and buddy comedy genres to depict the dark underbelly of show business success, Cheadle and his writers really seem to be creating something special. Not since Capote director Bennett Miller avoided the charismatic, flamboyant personality of Truman Capote and instead embraced the stark tone of his classic true crime novel has a film come so close to revealing aspects of its real life subject through counterintuitive storytelling devices.
Sadly, though, the film makes two major mistakes. The first is that, as the exploits of Davis start to veer into hijinks, the film threatens to become too silly, dropping the very real sense of urgency in favor of a more madcap – possibly even zany – tone. As this happens, our investment in the inner demons that drive Miles Davis starts to evaporate.
The second mistake is that, despite a desire to steer the film into uncharted storytelling waters, the filmmakers still occasionally fall back into the expected conventions. We take several breaks from the dire, kinetic pursuit in order to flash back to a young Davis getting involved in drugs, abusing his long-suffering wife, and generally heading down the path of self destruction. This is most certainly well-trod territory, as I am reminded of Ray, Walk the Line, Gainsbourg, and countless other stock musical biopics. While I understand the instinct to show us more overtly the poor choices and regrets that Davis carries with him, this bogs the film down to the point of actual boredom. We’ve seen this all before.
Much of the pain and regret could have been expressed through Davis’ cryptic answers and obvious evasions to the journalist’s questions. And while, in doing that, we wouldn’t get the specific details, this doesn’t seem like a film that, at first glance, is that interested in the specificity of Davis’ life. Otherwise, why all the genre-bending?
Better instead to allow Cheadle’s soulful performance as Davis to ground the film in the lighter moments and suggest a deep well of suffering that can only be guessed at, rather than simply spelling everything out for the audience. That is what lesser films do. And, for a good portion of its running time, Miles Ahead is a better film than that; a much better film. But, sadly, for whatever reason, Cheadle and his writers get a little sheepish as the film progresses and start to dilute an otherwise-exciting genre departure with standard conventionality, rendering it unfulfilling and, ultimately, inessential.