NYFF 2015 Review: "Miles Ahead" (Written & Directed by Don Cheadle)
Do you think you know jazz? What does it mean when you hear the warble of the bass, the symphonic stir of the clarinet, or the smooth and acidic keeping time of the percussion? "Miles Ahead", the brand new gem of a directorial debut from prolific character actor-turned A-lister Don Cheadle unfolds at breakneck speed and cultivates so many palatable moments of awe that you sometimes forget what you are supposed to be watching. Charging along in much the same way that F. Gary Gray's NWA biopic "Straight Outta Compton" did earlier this year, this movie was designed with improvisation in mind. Many scenes from alternating time periods bleed into each other and blend together and it could prove confusing or even disturbing at times. It won't leave you as breathless and queasily sick as Robert Zemeckis's technical marvel "The Walk", but its originally concocted story that finds an aging and out of work Davis scrambling to find a long-lost session tape by way of crooked label executives who stole it from him proves to be an interesting plot device that is executed with aplomb.
In many interviews, writer-director-star Don Cheadle stated he never wanted to make another drab, traditional biopic. He would go on to imply that that approach was easy and usually resulted in pretty insufferable results. Sure, there's Taylor Hackford's "Ray", Oliver Stone's "The Doors", Julie Taymor's "Frida" & Spike Lee's "Malcolm X", to name several, but, by and large, the traditional mold demands to be broken. Cheadle's piece is an arresting tour-de-force and he spends little time on the history of jazz or Miles Davis's contemporaries. Knowingly, he believes his viewing audience already knows all that so he insists everyone jumps right in and becomes entreated by his vivid account of the enigmatic musical stalwart. We encounter Davis at first bottomed out circa 1980 where he hasn't produced any new material in several decades. He's giving an interview to a fledging British music journalist (Ewan McGregor) about why he's disappeared from the scene as he amounts to the fact that he lost his mojo in a really bad way. The films then flashes to prime-era Davis in the mid-to-late 1950s where he is a chart-topper and is on everyone's radar including those who aren't remotely interested in jazz. Essentially the Katy Perry of the jazz world, Davis finds himself the poster child for a new musical revolution. It is one that he doesn't eagerly embrace with open arms but there's more than a hint of reluctance. He proceeds to meet future divorced-wife-to-be Francine outside her house in a very unconventional way when he says "here's my number so you don't have to keep staring". Only an acid-cool jazzman can pull something like this off as he jots his digits down on a dollar bill, crinkles it, and places it firmly in her smooth, cocoa-butter palms. Unfortunately, this moment will no doubt signal his eventual destruction years later.
Cheadle, to his credit, focuses much less on the music and more on how singularly important the music is on a personal level to Davis as its creator. He turns the biopic/docudrama genre totally sideways and invents a robust and inspired narrative throughline: evil, scheming record producers steal, right from under his nose, a coveted session tape of later-year Davis recordings that apparently have immense value. The originator of this mission, Michael Stuhlbarg's smarmy A&R man, spends the film in hot pursuit of this record. Plenty of atypical car chases later, blood and panic fill the frame as Davis fights for his very sanity and stability in a world that he thinks has swept his legacy to the curb. While I am none too convinced that his framing device completely works, it is nonetheless entertaining and succeeds in prying open Davis's mind, ego, and tortured self-loathing. He may be flippant, judgmental, even crude in his later-year days but the moments that Cheadle presents where he is at his most vulnerable give us someone to root for.
Think of "Bonnie & Clyde" & "Thelma and Louise" meets "Bird" and that makes a pretty daring cocktail of thematic ingredients to savor. From a cinematic standpoint, Cheadle's keen-eye is impressive and certainly bodes well for future projects where he is at the helm. Honestly, whenever an actor takes a stab at directing it can truly go one of two ways: it'll be D.O.A. like Chris Evans's seriously misguided Woody Allen-esque romantic comedy-drama "Before We Go" which takes very similar beats as the Woodman and even Richard Linklater in his "Before" series and just rehashes lesser quality versions. Or, it could surprise and delight like Ron Howard, Tom McCarthy and recent "Gone Baby Gone" phenom Ben Affleck. Thank goodness for Cheadle who wisely imbues his film with the unpredictability of any jazz piece - a majority of it seemingly off-the-cuff but the auteur proves he's always in control even when it looks like his lofty ambitions could turn toward self-sabotage. The time jumps are effortless and they bleed into each other scene in-scene out especially in the film's later acts when Davis, facing negative side-effects from prescription drugs meant to treat his sickle-cell anemia, becomes more aggressive and agitated as he unwittingly pushes everyone away and embarks on a solitary and bitter final hours. But, rather than shoe-horn a sobering, forced ending, Cheadle leaves us awe-inspired as we see Davis perform at a more modern/progressive fusion concert with crowds cheering, regaining a new lease on life and music, and offering Ewan McGregor's ace-reporter last minute insights as to what led to his path of redemption.
Even if you've never heard a jazz record, this is a must see film because it challenges one's own perception of their capabilities and proves that no matter the uphill battle of the struggle or the internal demons trying to derail your dreams, that triumph is just one bout of inspiration away. Davis, having passed away in 1991, lived through that notion body and soul and it is Cheadle's hope that so will you.