NYFF: ‘Miles Ahead’ is an equally ambitious and flawed biopic

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An unconventional musical biopic that works most successfully as a filmmaking calling card for actor turned writer/director Don Cheadle, Miles Ahead is the sort of ambitious, flawed, and just plain odd movie that you often see on the festival circuit. Probably best viewed as more of an indie experiment than an Oscar contender, the New York Film Festival made an unusual pick for their Closing Night selection. This look at jazz legend Miles Davis features a committed lead performance by Cheadle, as well as some occasionally inspired directing on his part, but it’s all put together in the service of a strangely generic script. The style helps to elevate things, but the substance just really isn’t there. Certain elements are too underplayed, others are hammered home far too often, and the vibe is just very inconsistent. Essentially, Miles Ahead is all over the place (there’s a car chase, among other things). It’s a bit of a mess, but rarely a boring one. If nothing else, it left me excited about Cheadle’s directing career. It’s a unique way for NYFF to end. Miles Ahead is too flawed to recommend, but all the same, it’s definitely worth seeing when it makes its way to theaters, likely next year.

The film mostly looks at one specific era in the life of Miles Davis (Cheadle), though there are periodic jumps back in time and one more or less jump into the future at the end. Davis, as we meet him being interviewed by low rent journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), is an enigma. He doesn’t like the term jazz, preferring “social music”, and is both funny and cutting in equal measure. We then transition into seeing him more or less as a hermit, locked in his apartment, addled by injury and drug addiction, longing for the company of former lover and muse Francis Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). While the plot involves him letting Brill into his life, a recording session he doesn’t want to give up, the shady record executive (Michael Stuhlbarg) who wants it, and some action sequences towards the end, the main thrust is what’s going on inside Davis’ head. He’s haunted by the memory of Francis, and not only his past failures, but his successes as well. Neither of the threads fully work, but both have their moments, I’ll say that much.

miles-aheadDon Cheadle leads a solid cast here, though I didn’t find anyone to be doing work that was above and beyond. Cheadle is best in show, overcoming the exaggerated sounds and mannerisms of Davis that were required to let you believe him as the musician. He’s impressive in the musical scenes, playing his instrument like you’d imagine Davis would, while in his messier moments, you see the addled genius side as well. The script has him going to extremes a bit much, but the performance is very strong, regardless. The other roles are slightly thankless by comparison, but Emayatzy Corinealdi and Ewan McGregor make the most of their opportunities. McGregor is the audience surrogate and the one trying to figure out Davis, while is a specter throughout, also showing us who Davis is at his core. Both are underused, but they manage to leave small marks. Michael Stuhlbarg is wasted in a cheesy role though, while Keith Stanfield (or as he’s credited here Lakeith Lee Stanfield) is given very little to do as well. Also on hand in a small role is Austin Lyon, among others, but Miles Ahead is anchored by Cheadle’s performance, plain and simple. He’s the acting standout, without question.

This is obviously a passion project for Don Cheadle, and it shows. While the screenplay he co-wrote with Steven Baigelman, Stephen J. Rivele, and Christopher Wilkinson is a very weak link, Cheadle’s direction is far stronger by comparison. It’s a work in progress, and definitely not there yet, but the good behind the camera does slightly outweigh the bad. Cheadle is too unfocused and enamored with Davis, but he does show off the chops to be a great multi-hyphenate soon. In particular, the editing in the film from John Axelrad and Kayla Emter is extremely good. Cheadle chooses to have flashbacks and memories from Davis seep into the scenes beforehand, either in terms of a seamless cut or a slight introduction of a fantasy element. Axelrad and Emter keep it creative and interesting, even if it exacerbates an occasionally showy feel to an otherwise small story. Solid cinematography from Roberto Schaefer and music from Herbie Hancock (when not using actual Davis compositions or Cheadle’s own contributions) help with the details. The attention to the period is excellent as well. Honestly, if the focus was a little stronger, the pace was a little better (it feels longer than the 100 minutes that it is) and some of the wackier elements (like the aforementioned car chase as well as a tendency towards near action sequences at times) were toned down, I’d probably have gone with an actual recommendation. It’s those generic elements that weigh down an otherwise unique work and leave a slightly bad taste in your mouth by the end. It’s a shame too, as Cheadle offers up some tantalizing moments and hints of his talents.

Awards wise, this probably won’t contend for Oscars, whether this year or next year (give or take Best Film Editing), but whenever Miles Ahead comes out, it’ll be worth seeing as a sample of what Cheadle is capable of. Too weird to be a prestige flick, it’ll likely find its footing as an indie curiosity. Regardless, while it’s flawed and just a shade too much of a mess for me to recommend here at the end of the 2015 New York Film Festival, I do still think it’s well worth giving a shot to, provided your expectations are kept in check. Whenever the film comes out, be it in 2015 or 2016, we’ll bring you more, but for now, Miles Ahead is an interesting failure, albeit a very interesting one.

GRADE(★★½)

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