Miles Ahead (US, 2015)

Cheadle ahead

Biopics that attempt to cover a whole life rarely work as life doesn’t readily crush into a two-hour narrative; an alternative is to focus on a particular time with flashbacks to key moments, which works much better. The ‘moment’ in Don Cheadle’s (it is his: he stars, co-wrote, directed, produced) film is the silence Davis ‘endured’ during the ’70s. I’ve been a Miles fan for years and was soon wrapped up in Cheadle’s fantastic performance and, after some irritating camerawork of the framing interview, at the start, directs well. Above all, it is the convincing realisation of the music that stands out; it wasn’t hard to think we were watching Miles, and many other jazz greats (in the flashbacks), at play. Plaudits also to Hannah Beachler’s production design and Roberto Schaefer’s cinematography.

Although authenticity is important, the film also deploys a fictional character as a foil. Ewen MacGrego, rchannelling Renton, plays a Scottish journalist who’s trying to blag an exclusive interview. MacGregor at one point tells Miles he couldn’t remember what happened because he ‘was offa ma tits’ (drunk): Cheadle-Mile’s incomprehension is brilliant. Cheadle also uses some extreme close-ups which, along with the soundtrack, give expressionist moments which serve to portray Miles’ state of mind rather than simply showing what was happening.

The film does not ignore Miles’ faults: his treatment of his wife, superbly played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, is shown to be riven by the sexism of the time. He tells her to give up her career so he can look after her. Why were (are) men threatened by strong women? His addictions are also shown for what they were.

In comparison, a recent film that uses the same narrative technique to portray a star, Judy, relies too heavily on the (superb) performance of Renee Zellwegger. The flashbacks here focus on The Wizard of Oz, but miss out on the 1940s, the years of Garland’s greatest stardom. The film’s thesis is her treatment, as a 17-year-old, by Louis B Mayer, blighted her life. While I’m sure that’s true, anyone unfamiliar with Garland wouldn’t get a sense of how big a star she was so the ‘fall’ in the ’60s is slightly less a tragedy. Miles Ahead both fleshes out the milieux of the time and Miles’ seminal musical moments sufficiently to understand how his ’70s hiatus was significant.

Music is key to the success of the film and you do get a sense of eavesdropping on the creation of great music: for example, Miles working with the Evanses, Bill and Gil. Most of all, it pushes you back to the Mile’s great albums.

One Response

  1. […] hampered by a lack of copyright clearance for Hendrix’s own music. Like Don Cheadle, in Miles Ahead, the film works because we appear to be eavesdropping on a great. Of course, all biopics are an […]

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