When I reviewed the recent Ethan Hawke film, Born To Be Blue, I was astounded. I made reference to my theory that waiting for stylised semi-fictional accounts of jazz trumpet legends is like waiting for a bus - nothing for a while, then two come along at once. Why? Because Born To Be Blue was basically the same film as Don Cheadle’s directorial debut, Miles Ahead. It took an equally unorthodox approach to biographical filmmaking, it covered the life of another jazz trumpeter...It just all felt a little too similar. But I wasn’t raging at Born To Be Blue because it was trying to steal Miles Ahead’s thunder; Miles Ahead didn’t have that much thunder in the first place.
Out now on DVD & Blu-ray, it’s clear from every stage of this film’s life – from marketing through to the final product – that this is a Don Cheadle film. It’s no surprise to learn he directed and co-wrote Miles Ahead, having been seriously interested in making a Miles Davis film for many years. Unfortunately though, this passion in the subject is the film’s first flaw. Don Cheadle is an incredible actor and does an amazing job with the role, but you can’t shake the feeling that he’s kissing his own arse for the entire 2 hour runtime. While Cheadle plays Miles as a cocky and arrogant man trying to make a comeback and become relevant again, it’s difficult to see where Cheadle ends and Davis begins. Still, it’s an incredible performance…of a fictional character.
Yes, too much of Miles Ahead is idealised and stylised nonsense. Miles Davis never fired a gun in record label meetings, nor did he get into car chases when other labels tried to steal his demo tapes. Miles Ahead admits that a lot of the film is bollocks; the narrative structure is framed in such a way that Miles is telling his story, but as he puts it, “If you gonna tell a story, come at it with some attitude, man”. Throughout this, we are treated to flashbacks that are slightly more grounded in reality – covering his early years, recording Kind of Blue and other such works. But it’s when the film attempts to cover the largely unknown inactive 70s period of Davis’ life that it gets a little bit silly. I will repeat – there is no evidence of Davis ever firing a gun in a record label office. Why make something like this up? He wasn’t a gangster. That’s like making a film about Gandhi and saying he turned up to a peace campaign with a rocket launcher and took pot-shots at the tree-line.
You’re probably thinking to yourself “didn’t I hear Ewan McGregor was in this?” and yes, for some reason, he is. Playing a completely fictional journalist who goes on a fictional adventure with the, for the most part, fictional Miles Davis - it makes me wonder why this is even a Miles Davis film in the first place. This could just be a story about an unspecific musician plagued by regret and loss trying to get back on stage. This is the same criticism I had of the aforementioned Born To Be Blue, which took so many liberties with Chet Baker’s life it could’ve easily not been a Chet Baker film. And I’m not being snobby, nor am I unable to comprehend the artistic merit of an unconventional biopic. I loved Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle’s semi-fictional account of 3 periods of the iconic techie’s life. And Michael Winterbottom’s hugely fabricated and messy 24 Hour Party People is one of the best biopics out there. But there’s something about Miles Ahead’s cocky attitude that makes it different to those films. Oh, and Ewan McGregor is shit in it. And he has silly hair. That is all.
Miles Ahead has its merits – again, despite the self-arse-kissing, Cheadle does put in a mesmerising performance as Davis. And it is perfect casting, even earning the seal of approval from some of Davis’ surviving family who said Cheadle was the only man who could do it. And the film is lucky in the sense it had permission to use Davis’ elegant works throughout, giving it one of the year’s best soundtracks. But despite this, there’s not enough to elevate the film above the countless other B-list biopics that don’t do enough to elevate them to A.
Miles Ahead takes a hugely interesting subject and mixes it up, fictionalises sections and generally fucks with it until it is no longer interesting. An underwhelming disappointment, but worth a look for Cheadle’s performance and the beautiful soundtrack.
I give it a 3/5.
Miles Ahead at CeX
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