Review: Miles Ahead, the movie

Roger Farbey highly recommends the long-anticipated Miles Davis biopic and hails a remarkable performance from star and director Don Cheadle

Don Cheadle's long-anticipated and highly recommended directorial debut is constructed around a primary conceit set in the mid-1970s, wherein the fictitious Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill (played by Ewan McGregor, pictured right with Don Cheadle by Brian Douglas) knocks on Miles's door and is rewarded with a punch in the face from the maestro. Brill somehow manages to ingratiate himself with Miles, mainly due to his hunger for an exclusive "comeback" story and partially due to his active willingness to participate and assist in the trumpeter's overarching extra-mural activity at that time, coke.

The 70s action centres around a tape which Columbia, starved of new Miles material, is desperate to get their hands on but which is stolen from Miles's house by an unscrupulous impresario hoping to make a fast buck. Dave helps find the tape but it turns out to be from Miles’s organ period, his trumpet chops having waned in the interregnum. Other aspects of Miles’s life (other than his cocaine habit) are visited including boxing and, very briefly, his art.

A series of match cuts dramatically transport the audience from Miles's "fallow" five years during the mid-70s to the late 50s and early 60s, including a scene depicting the despicable, unprovoked physical assault on Miles by NYC police officers.This has the effect of adding an historical narrative in addition to the later storyline where Miles is portrayed as a cocaine-raddled mess. The 50s/60s scenes revolve around Miles’s stormy relationship with his then wife Frances Taylor played with panache by Emayatzy Corinealdi. It culminates in her leaving him after he had forced her to abandon her burgeoning career as a ballerina. Her image adorns the covers of E.S.P. and Someday My Prince Will Come, which Miles, having been reluctantly cajoled into autographing two of his albums, retrieves from the coke dealer they visit saying “this one’s mine.”

Don Cheadle (pictured left) is remarkable playing the lead as Miles, both physically and vocally, his rasping Don Corleone-like whispered mutterings perfectly emulating the original. The dubbed music is real Miles Davis though. There are also some great one liners such as when Dave Brill, impressed by Miles’s piano playing, naively asks him “You studied piano?” to which Miles retorts “No, I woke up black.” Another great line is heard when the legend volunteers the information “I was born modal” to the frankly fairly stupid Dave. Tellingly he also tells Dave not to use the word jazz, rather to call it “social music”. Although perhaps in reality he would have said call it anything.

Robert Glasper was responsible for the excellent contemporary music included and in a final moving “comeback” scene Don Cheadle’s Miles appears on stage alongside an all-star cast of musicians including Antonio Sanchez, Esperanza Spalding, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, almost recalling the 10 July 1991 concert at La Villette, Paris. This is much more than just a biopic, just as Miles Davis was much more than merely a great jazz musician. A final poignant end title displays the solitary date May 26, 1926 - the obvious implication being that his music will live on forever. Which it will. 

Miles Ahead screens in the UK from 22 April 2016. See more in our preview.

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