Wednesday, May 4, 2016

'Miles Ahead' review

"If you're gonna tell a story, come with some attitude."

For their directorial debut, most new filmmakers would be content to start with something low-key or minor. Not Don Cheadle. The actor-turned-director comes out firing with Miles Ahead, a sprawling, ambitious dissection of the life of iconic "social" musician Miles Davis. In every sense of the word, this is an unconventional biopic. Moving with a flowing sense of jazzy energy, the film jumps between scenes throughout Davis' life, conveying a sense of remorse, regret, and failure as the musician ponders his future. It's a fascinating take on the tale of an artist, and for those reasons, I have tremendous respect for what Cheadle has crafted here. Unfortunately, I would be lying if I said that I liked the film. Miles Ahead is a film that is nearly impossible to crack. It is utterly shapeless, and despite its cinematic pizzazz, it can never find a way to create compelling, dynamic characters or craft a fascinating narrative.

And when I say narrative, I use the term loosely. There isn't much a story in Miles Ahead- it's more of a random collection of scenes, sewn together by an action movie plotline where Davis (played by Cheadle) searches for his session tapes. His partner-in-crime is Rolling Stone writer Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), a disheveled reporter searching to find what he can about Davis in order to write his comeback story. However, Davis might not necessarily want his comeback story written. He's in a constant battle with Columbia Records over the tapes, trying to keep them from the shady Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg) and resisting the company's attempts to get him to train a budding young jazz musician (Lakeith Stanfield).

It's all rather hallucinatory and woozy, as the basic story is intertwined with scenes from Davis' past, with added emphasis on his tragic relationship with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). This would all be rather fascinating if we knew anything about Miles Davis. The unfortunate thing about Cheadle's film is that it literally gives the audience nothing to work with. Here is a movie driven by a constant liveliness and a flashy spontaneity that cannot tell us anything about its characters. I knew as much about Miles Davis going into this movie as I did when I walked out. The Miles Davis of Miles Ahead is dominated by glaring personality tics, but very little actual humanity. He speaks with a whisper, holes himself up in his house, walks around with a small pistol, and is absolutely driven to gain back his music. But why? The movie never answers that vital question.

Essentially, Miles Ahead feels like a sequel to a movie that I missed. It's almost as if reading a biopic on Miles Davis is a requirement to see this movie. To be honest, I'm not overly familiar with Davis. I've never really listened to his music, I don't know much about his life, and before seeing the trailer for this movie, I was utterly unaware of his influence on the jazz world. Miles Ahead didn't need to start from Davis' childhood nor did it need to give me an in-depth breakdown of his entire life. But it needs something to hook its audience. In this movie, we're presented with an unlikable cipher of a character instead of someone who we can understand. He makes choices that don't make logical sense, and the film can provide only incredibly weak explanations for the self-destructive behavior. Once again, the film doesn't know why it's telling this story.

When I look at this film from the perspective of someone who doesn't know Davis that well, I see a very empty movie. It is not as smart as it thinks it is. However, there is quite a bit of impressive filmmaking on display from Cheadle and he certainly has a lot of promise as a director. Even though the movie struggled to hold my interest for much of its 100 minute runtime, Cheadle's direction provides a desperately-needed shot in the arm for the rambling biopic. Each scene bounces with an unpredictability that is absolutely tangible, lifting the movie to occasionally impressive heights. A good portion of Miles Ahead is devoted to a wacky action movie plot, which carries a distinct grungy, almost Blaxploitation-esque vibe. Cheadle knows filmmaking and even though this isn't a good movie, he's a director to watch.

The performances in Miles Ahead are equally fantastic, dominated by Cheadle's mesmerizing turn as Davis. The film gives us no insight in regards to Davis' motivation or tortured conscience, but that doesn't stop Cheadle from commanding every bit of our attention. He captures each aspect of this character, from the voice to the walk. It's just unfortunate that the movie surrounding Davis almost turns Cheadle's performance into a caricature. Ewan McGregor complements Cheadle well, bringing a messy swagger to Dave Brill. Watching Davis and Brill interact is intermittently amusing and the action scenes with the two of them can be pretty fun, despite the movie's failings. In addition to the two leads, Michael Stuhlbarg is magnificently charismatic as Hamilton, while Lakeith Stanfield continues to prove that he's a rising star with his turn as a budding musician.

All of these great elements are regrettably stuck in a film that just doesn't work. Miles Ahead may be fascinating for fans of the great musician, but for everyone else, it will be an extremely challenging and often unrewarding journey. Cheadle's passion bleeds through every scene of the film, and yet, he struggles to make a point. Miles Ahead proves that Cheadle is a director with bravado, but he needs to be working with a tighter script and with characters that have clear goals and motivations. While the film is terrific at conveying Davis' sense of musical talent and importance, it never discovers the man behind the flamboyant guise. Without a clear sense of focus or any real development, the acclaimed actor's first foray into the world of filmmaking stylishly misses the mark.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.8/10)

Image Credits: Indiewire, EW, Hollywood Reporter, Joblo

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