09242017Headline:

“Miles Ahead” movie review

By Jeff Boudreaux

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Don Cheadle directs and stars in “Miles Ahead,” a biopic that may or may not have taken liberties with the truth in the midst of a downturn in the life and career of the legendary jazz giant – Miles Davis. Amidst the drug-laden and surprisingly mafia-like antics of the 1970’s music industry, this unconventional script (also by Cheadle) formulates a polarizing contrast between Davis’ so-called “gangster” days and the undeniably fantastic music that this man was capable of and certainly provided to millions of fans around the world. A definite candidate for best soundtrack of the year (if there is such an award somewhere and also judging by the number of Shazams while viewing), the music serves as a greatest hits of sorts, covering Davis’ output from the 1957 album that shares its name with this film’s title, to 1981’s aptly-named “The Man with the Horn,” with new tracks by Grammy-winner Robert Glasper.

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Davis (Cheadle in an Oscar-worthy performance) is at an impasse with his record label. Not having released new music in nearly two years, the executives at Columbia records are naturally getting a little peeved. The chain-smoking, coke-snorting trumpeter unsurprisingly claims he’s suffering from a scratchy throat. But, in all actuality, he’s sitting on a series of tapes which proves that his music has gone even more avante garde than he had in the preceding decade. Enter Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan MacGregor), who quickly positions himself into Miles’ inner circle (predominantly comprised of just Davis!) for a groundbreaking interview. The seemingly unhappy musician has a penchant for harkening back to a brighter period in his life, in a series of flashbacks which place Davis at the prime of his career, which also focuses on his passionate, and slowly collapsing relationship with his wife and “muse,” dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi of “Middle of Nowhere”).

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It is within this backwards narrative that the film finds its strongest footing, showcasing the life and love of this music legend with a slow-burning dramatic intensity. Yet, “Miles Ahead” mostly concerns itself with a paranoid, washed-out individual who’s more likely to punch or even shoot someone than to coalesce and actually talk to them. In fact, the second half of the film solely devotes itself to carrying on as a reluctant “buddy” film, where Miles and Dave attempt to retrieve master tapes stolen by the seedy promoter Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his protégé Junior (Keith Stanfield), a jazz prodigy. Still, the sounds of Davis’ trumpet throughout the course of the film makes up for many a shortcoming.

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For each of the film’s variations, there is one constant, and that is the music of Miles Davis. Throughout each era, he reinvented himself and redefined what jazz was or what it could be. From the perfection of 1959’s “Kind of Blue” (arguably the greatest jazz album of all-time) to his legendary explorations into world music (“Sketches of Spain”) and fusion (“Bitches Brew”), Miles Davis may be perceived to have enjoyed legendary status upon arrival, and I doubt anyone will argue to the contrary. Just don’t make the mistake of actually referring to his music as jazz, as Braden or anyone else who insists upon using “labels” to define art will be rebuked, and rightfully so.

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One question this film does beg is “how do you measure a man?” By his fruits (i.e. music)? His respect among his industry peers? How about his personal loves or reverence by a legion of adoring fans? If you answered all of the above, you know you’re correct – because it’s human nature. And with fame comes its downfalls. The loss of an apparent soulmate or even the surrender of mind and body to the ravaging effects of drugs and greed can almost always make a man out of a god. So, in terms of humanizing its subject, “Miles Ahead” succeeds. Yet, as a time capsule of one of the greats, I can’t help but regard this as an incomplete portrait of two very different eras of his life.

**1/2 (two-and-a-half out of four stars)

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