MILES AHEAD is a movie I admired more than enjoyed, which is odd because I love jazz, spent much of my early 20s in a Miles Davis, and have great respect for the talent of Don Cheadle - the lead actor, director and engine behind this whole production. He conceives of the biopic of the iconic jazz trumpeter as a story within a story. The framing device sees Miles in his later years, on the verge of coming out of his self-imposed, drug-fuelled exile, and inventing a funky electronic afro-jazz. Our window into the story is a journalist played by Ewan Macgregor - a kind of enabler and partner in crime who will do anything for access to the Davis story, including scoring him drugs and brandishing a firearm as they careen around time in some kind of caper whose purpose is never quite clear, all the time scored to Davis' music. Every now and then Davis sees an album cover featuring a photo of his wife, and this prompts a flashback to his earlier days as a pioneer of Cool Jazz. Miles mark one has short hair and a preppy jacket that were later replaced by a more race-conscious look. We realise that he loves his wife, but this doesn't prevent him from being abusive. The regret at his marriage's failure stays with him into the later framing device years.
The movie is really good at conveying the excitement, pace and freedom of Davis' playing, and visually underlines it with chase and fight scenes, cut to his tunes. But the movie is at its most emotionally affecting when it slows down and shows us the real struggles he faced. The most poignant scene occurs when a flirtatious white woman asks him to escort her out of the club at which he's playing. The beat cop takes against this inter-racial couple, even though they aren't one, and provokes Davis into a scuffle which results in his arrest. All of this remains deeply relevant to our times.
I regret that there aren't more quiet moments of power like this and that the movie is too caught up in the Macgregor/Cheadle chase scenes in the framing story. I admire the intent of conveying improvisation in music through improvisation in life but it feels as though this movie is caught between too stalls - between a more conventional approach and a free jazz style. The result is a film that is curiously uninvolving.
MILES AHEAD is rated R and has a running time of 100 minutes. The movie played Sundance, Berlin and SXSW 2016 and opened earlier this year in the USA and Canada. It's currently on release in the UK and Ireland and opens in July in Norway, Portugal, Denmark, Peru and Spain, in September in Poland and in December in Japan.
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