In a nutshell: Miles Ahead is a high-octane biopic that feels authentic in its depiction of Miles Davis, with the soundtrack of his music extraordinarily effective in tonally complementing and enhancing the drama.
The film opens with a speeding car screeching to a halt and the two occupants sprawling on to the wet street. They flee into the night, as shots from a pursuing driver ring out. One of the pursued is Miles Davis (Don Cheadle). He drops a canned mastertape in his stumbling haste and risks his life to retrieve it, ignoring the entreaties of his frantic companion to keep moving.
That companion is Rolling Stone journo Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor). We learn in flashback that he has infused himself into Davis’ reclusive life in hope of penning a piece on his comeback. It seems a vain hope.
The setting is the 70s, during a troubled period in Davis’ life, and he is in a bad way. He rarely leaves his apartment, is drug-dependent, creatively shut down, bitter, and prone to violent outbursts. Further, he is in dispute with his record company, and in refusing to provide them with his current recording is in breach of his contractual obligations. Brill is evidently a man of professional dedication with faith that Davis will climb out of his morass, for he endures a smack in the face and torrents of abuse before hitting on the strategy of ingratiating himself to his would-be subject by assisting him to score some top quality coke.
The narrative charges along like a runaway train, in sync with the chaotic lead character’s spiralling free-fall. With Brill tagging along, we enter Davis’ world of dealers and drugs, sleazy record company execs, and altercations with a slimy lawyer. It seems to Davis that everyone is out for a piece of him, and while he is paranoid and mentally unstable, he is not far wrong. One evening he and Brill return to his apartment to find someone has organised a party in his absence. The attendees are hip types looking to add to their cred by rubbing shoulders with the legend. Davis escapes to a basement room and lines of coke.
Flashbacks provide some respite from the manic pace and an opportunity to flesh out Davis’ character and some of his formative influences. In one scene, he is brutally assaulted by a racist white cop while having a smoke break outside the club at which he and his band are playing.
The primary focus, though, is his relationship with his ex-wife Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Monstrously possessive and controlling, soon after they marry he demands that she abandon her promising dancing career, but the sacrifices are one way. He justifies his infidelity as “not meaning anything” and subjects Frances to physical abuse. Their split is inevitable, yet ever after their marriage ends, Davis remains stuck on his lost love. He is full of these sorts of contradictions, and seemingly locked into a course of self-destruction.
The soundtrack features Davis’ music in all its diversity, and exists in a powerful symbiotic relationship with the narrative, tonally enhancing and complementing the drama. It’s rare to experience a near-perfect combination of sound and visuals like this. In fact, for me, this is the defining quality of the film. The spirit of Davis is present in the music, and projected into the narrative. Doubtless, there are some liberties taken with the facts (apparently Brill is a fictional character, for example), but Cheadle plays the lead role with conviction and looks the part, and with Davis breathing real and true through the soundtrack, exercising some poetic license for the sake of the drama seems unimportant and forgivable.
If the depiction here is close to the reality, Davis was pathologically selfish, unreasonable and often irrational, capable of charm and humour certainly, but overall a nasty piece of work. Perhaps the film reinforces the notion that artistic genius and its legacy transcends all manner of jerk behaviour. I can live with that. Art and its creator can surely be assessed as separate entities. And however unpleasant and messed up Davis might have been, in Cheadle’s hands he is never less than fascinating.
Movie website: www.milesdavis.com/miles-ahead/
2015-16 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 7-13 March, 7.30pm
Joondalup Pines: 15-20 March, 7.30pm
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