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Non-Review Review: Miles Ahead

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

Miles Ahead is a very strange film.

Don Cheadle stars as jazz musician Miles Davis. Not that Davis particularly cares for the descriptor. “That’s a made-up word, jazz,” he reflects during the opening credits. Asked to select a better description of his work, Davis settles on “social music.” In many ways, that awkward conversation sets the tone for the rest of the film, which weaves between a fairly conventional music biopic and a comedy musical heist adventure for no real reason beyond the fact that it really doesn’t want to be a conventional music biopic.

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Miles Ahead feels like a passion project for Cheadle, who not only headlines the film but also directs and co-writes. Watching the movie unfold, it is clear that Cheadle cares deeply for the source material and understands the challenges the face any twenty-first century musical biography. Because Miles Ahead is adapting a life for film, it cannot avoid the familiar beats; the drug addiction, the disintegrated marriage, the wilderness years. However, Cheadle works to undercut these familiar tropes through a surreal and ambitious framing device.

Miles Ahead does not work. The film has no shortage of ambition, very clearly angling towards a free-form narrative style intended to evoke the protagonist’s unique musical sensibility. Cheadle is determined that Miles Ahead will not be lumped among the dozens of fairly nondescript musical biographies, instead tailoring something to his subject. However, Miles Ahead lacks the improvisational flourish that defines its central character, feeling more disjointed than harmonious.

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There is a very conventional musical biography buried somewhere in Miles Ahead, behind all the clever cuts and awkward scene transitions. Miles Ahead splits its time fairly evenly between its fictitious “present” story about Miles attempting to recover a stolen session tape and flashback sequences delving into the character’s past. The flashbacks explore Miles’ tumultuous relationship with dancer Frances Davis, largely eschewing an origin or path to stardom story and jumping into their first encounter.

Despite their relatively tight focus, these flashbacks run through all of the tropes that one might expect from a story like this. There are glimpses of Miles’ creative process, his skill for revising and reworking compositions for maximum effect. There are sly nods to albums yet to come. There are a few brief interludes in which Miles and Frances find themselves confronting the casual racism of the forties and fifties. Over the course of the film, Miles succumbs to drug addiction and paranoia through the gateway drug of pain management meditation.

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These elements of Miles Ahead are fairly par for the course, but writers Don Cheadle and Steven Baigelman deserve a great deal of credit for refusing to gloss over their subject’s more unsavoury aspects. For all that Miles Ahead is written with a deep and abiding appreciation of Davis’ work, the film is perfectly willing to call out its central character. The film is broadly sympathetic to Davis, but is never blind to his faults. There is a refreshing willingness to let Davis be unsympathetic without straining to make excuses for him.

If Miles Ahead were devoted solely to this portrait of the Davis marriage, it might have made a solid (if unspectacular) musical biography. Perhaps understanding this, Cheadle and Baigelman opt for a more unconventional approach. These flashback sequences are framed by a sequence in which an older Davis teams up with a Rolling Stone journalist in order to prevent Columbia Records from getting their grubby mitts on a tape of his latest session. Car chases and gunfights ensue.

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This framing device is largely (or almost entirely) fictionalised, playing more as something like Get Him to the Greek than Ray. There is something quite clever and ambitious about using such a delightfully over-the-top framing sequence to couch what is essentially a very traditional musical biography. There is a clear sense that Cheadle wants Miles Ahead to be distinct, and his transitions from present to past are among the highlights of the film; Cheadle suggests that “now” and “then” are not as distinct as one might like, co-mingling and blurring.

However, the framing device struggles to find the right tone for the film around it. The musical buddy comedy caper film is at once too absurd to blend easily with the conventional flashbacks and too generic to properly contrast with them. The framing sequences feel compromised, as if they are an attempt to make a clean break from the storytelling conventions of films like this without ever going too far. Miles Ahead nods toward true experimentation rather than completely embracing it.

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This becomes particularly obvious when the film starts trying to weave standard musical biography themes into the surreal framing sequence itself, when car chases and gun shots give way to crises of identity and addiction. While the standard “does the master still have it?” plot beat is all but expected in a story like this, Miles Ahead struggles to cram it in at the very end of an over-the-top buddy comedy adventure that has the net effective of diminishing both elements of the plot.

It is a shame, because Cheadle is really good. Cheadle finds the heart of Miles Davis and brings it to screen, an unflinching portrayal that occasionally finds itself trapped beneath the storytelling chaos unfolding around it. The movie’s best moments seem to lose focus on the story being told and instead focus on the man himself. Cheadle’s raspy grumbling has more life to it than the film around it, suggesting that there might be some life in a film or television franchise where Don Cheadle plays a perpetually angry Miles Davis as a metaphysical musical detective.

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Miles Ahead boldly charges into uncharted territory for the musical biopic. It just gets lost along the way.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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