SXSW Review: Miles Ahead

SXSWCan we just give Don Cheadle all the awards right now? Miles Ahead, Cheadle’s directorial debut, which also showcases his talents as co-writer and lead actor, is a unique and moving biopic about a unique and moving individual, Miles Davis. Not satisfied to just check off the boxes of events in Davis’ life, Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda, Boogie Nights) has crafted a masterpiece of cinema, jarringly jumping around in time to show events that help the audience better understand the complexity of a troubled, but genius mind. This is a perfect blend of scenes that fold in on each other with quiet subtlety and simultaneously explode outward with grandiose vigor, mirroring the effect that the music of Miles Davis had a tendency to create. Combining all those elements with a virtuoso acting performance from Cheadle, a soundtrack that spans Davis’ long career as a musician, surprisingly adept comedy beats, tight, gripping editing, and stellar support from Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting, Big Fish) and Emayatzy Corinealdi (“Hand of God”) creates a triumphant, striking work of art.

Miles Ahead defies summary in a similar way to how jazz casts off boundaries and definitions, but I will do what I can here. The film spends a good portion of its time with Miles Davis and Rolling Stone reporter Dave Brill (McGregor) in 1979, just at the tail end of a puzzling 5-year silence from the theretofore exhaustingly prolific musician as Brill attempts to cajole the reluctant Davis out of an interview and Davis tries to preserve his hermitic lifestyle amongst increasingly tense and uncomfortably public circumstances. What follows are a string of scenes where Brill is exposed to a deeply disturbed and frequently volatile Davis as the two bond during a hunt for a stolen, unreleased tape. Intercut with these fast-paced, action moments are both tender and tragic memories related to the true inspiration for Davis, his ex-wife Frances Taylor (Corinealdi).

“Don Cheadle plays Miles Davis as Miles Davis in Miles Ahead” is what Cheadle said he was going for in his performance in this film during the post-screening Q&A session. While am not personally acquainted with Miles Davis, I feel as though the Miles Davis brought to life, warts and all, by Cheadle in this film has been introduced to me and punched me in the face. Never is there a second when the audience sees Don Cheadle on the screen; from the opening scene we are met by a growl-voiced, wild-haired Miles Davis. From beginning to end Cheadle plays Davis with love as well as informed critical distance, never letting the man become so big that he detracts from the goings-on or breaks from the “always changing” (as Davis himself may put it) nature of his life and music. This performance will be hard to forget as Cheadle’s Davis is dramatically damaged, haunted by his lost love, but still radiant and violently frightening, resulting in tense, room-quieting scenes that showcase the power of unpredictability.

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While Cheadle’s transcendent transformation into Miles Davis is certainly the standout, his gruff, off-putting outward persona is deftly handled with care and reverence by McGregor’s Brill in the ’79 scenes and Corinealdi’s Taylor in all of the flashbacks. Both of these supporting roles are fully fleshed out and played with stunning, often poignant brilliance by the actors. Even tertiary characters like scumbag record producer Harper Hamilton and young, heroine-addict, trumpet virtuoso Junior, played by Michael Stuhlbarg (“Boardwalk Empire”) and Lakeith Lee Stanfield (Dope, Straight Outta Compton), respectively, are blessed with strong performances, giving them unexpected depth and clear motivations.

The highly polished, nearly flawless way that Miles Ahead unfolds on the screen from a cinematographic perspective would be an achievement for any director. But, to realize that this is Don Cheadle’s first time behind the lens is beyond impressive. Perhaps from being tired of boilerplate, by-the-numbers biopics or more likely from the inspiration of the chaotically beautiful music of the film’s subject, Cheadle infuses Miles Ahead with an emotive, breakneck pace while still slowing down to include gorgeous shots of a smoky jazz club where everyone in the crowd or on the stage other that Davis and his beloved disappear from sight. Nothing about the somewhat ridiculous-sounding car chases, fistfights, and shootouts, reminiscent of dirty ‘70s crime films like Mean Streets, feels forced or out of place, as every scene is there to shine new light on the dark, buried mind of the once-king Miles.

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Miles Ahead is a film that I will want to watch again and show to my friends and recommend to strangers on the street and shout about from the rooftops of buildings. While the Q&A after a well deserved standing ovation from a full crowd at SXSW featured the effortlessly charming and humble duo of Cheadle and Corinealdi giving gobs of insight on inspiration, motivation, setbacks, and tough choices, I am still very hungry for any more information I can get about every aspect of this exquisite film. I look forward to the upcoming theatrical release and hope that loads of special features find their way onto the eventual Blu-ray, so I can take in the dazzling experience again and again.

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I like to be challenged to think about things, so I studied Philosophy in college. Now I am paying for it.

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