Screened Out – Miles Ahead

By : Stephen Miller
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Don Cheadle, Emayatzy E. Corinealdi, Ewan McGregor

It’s easy to applaud Don Cheadle for taking risks with jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. As a biopic, this is a very lively and often funny flick. It’s not always successful. It plays fast and loose – like a crazed improvisation on the man’s life.

I watched both bemused and frustrated, but never bored.

Don Cheadle does a great job capturing earlier periods in the musician's life.

Don Cheadle does a great job capturing earlier periods in the Miles Davis’s life.

First of all, Cheadle presents Davis as a broad character. One could easily see this as a great role in one of Cheadle’s many comedies. We do lose a little bit Davis’s genius as a musician, bandleader, and composer. Secondly, the whole movie purposefully plays like a Blaxploitation film. Thirdly, it’s not all true.

In the late 1970s, there was rumor of a Davis comeback after years of failed recordings and self-imposed retirement. By then, he was an unpredictable hermit, hooked on drugs, and constantly battling with everyone in his life. His family and friends either had to babysit or abandon him. Other people took advantage of him. His record company, fellow artists, and he constantly fought over possible session tapes and money.

One thing I do appreciate about Miles Ahead is that it doesn’t try to cherry-pick through Davis’s entire life. Instead, this flick concentrates on a specific period, flashing back to pertinent moments in the musician’s life.

Cheadle has committed everything to bringing the late artist’s life to screen. He co-wrote and co-produced this. He also directs himself, his first time directing. There’s so much for him to take on here – and so many experimentations – that one might excuse that the film is often messy, trite, and a tiny bit confusing.

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Ewan McGregor plays a fictional foil to Miles Davis’s madness; his addition is one of the missteps of the film.

Where Cheadle decides to get creative is in supposing a fictional journalist (McGregor) would write a story about Davis. This unethical man is edging for a cover story for Rolling Stone. He lies to get to Davis, and then soon realizes the price of mixing with a musical legend who is more than a bit unbalanced. Soon, he chauffeuring Davis around, refereeing conflicts, and helping Davis score drugs.

Often, McGregor’s false story takes attention away from Davis.

The second supposition – and the bigger misstep in this film – is that Davis’s comeback was real. Though he did record during this five-year dry spell, the general consensus is that the drugs and unpredictability meant the music wasn’t worth releasing. (It still hasn’t seen the light of day.) The gimmick is that Davis has recorded a brilliant album so personal that he doesn’t want it to be heard by the masses. That false album gets stolen and passed around between unscrupulous people. This goads the man out of his reclusion to find it, pointing guns at people’s faces.

None of this is true.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

Did I mention this is a biopic? Cheadle’s creative whims often forget that.

I would say that Davis’s life is already wild and intriguing enough without trying to force a fictional structure on it. Still, Miles Ahead is entertaining stuff. Cheadle has a blast, and there are a lot of nifty tunes in this disorganized and fictionalized jigsaw puzzle of a film ostensibly about one of America’s greatest.

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