By Steve Provizer
Writer-director-producer Don Cheadle took this gig seriously. The cinematography, costuming and editing of the film are strong and Cheadle’s performance throughout is impeccable. He completely inhabits the persona of the “late Miles.” Also to his credit, Cheadle lets the relationship between Miles’ musical genius and being an utter bastard play out, without resorting to childhood flashbacks or other filmic devices meant to lead us to psychological “insights.”
The first part of Miles Ahead gives hope that with the charismatic, controversial genius Miles Davis at the center of the movie, and so well portrayed, there will be enough inherent drama without the film resorting to cinematic clichés. But, while there are moving and satisfying scenes throughout, melodrama starts to creep in and the length of time devoted to car chases and trumped-up plot devices vitiates much of the original promise. The power of the performances of Cheadle and Emavatzy Corinealdi, who portrays Francis Davis, become subsumed in a dense layer of sub-plots that, in the end, don’t add up to much.
Here’s the jazz snob portion of our review: I didn’t like the fact that Miles-in-the-film says he rescued Trane from walking the bar. Trane was years away from that. I also don’t like that they had Miles playing what looked to me like a sliver-plated Bach trumpet. Someone can tell me if I’m wrong and that it was a Besson Brevete. To his credit, Cheadle mostly did a good miming job and seemed to actually play “Fran-Dance” in one scene.
The scene with Miles and Gil Evans in the studio made Evans completely passive and Miles the creative presence. By all accounts, Miles was a good collaborator and they didn’t need to overcompensate like that. In fact, the white characters were invariably shmucks and or thieves when, as noted above, Miles collaborated well with musicians of any race. After taking heat, in real life, for having the white Bill Evans in his band, Miles said: “I don’t care if a dude is purple with green breath as long as he can swing.” Having Miles say that in this film would have been inimical to its racial approach. You don’t have to overdraw the difference between racist thug cops and Teo Macero and Gil Evans, but you can have more balance than this movie does.
Maybe filmmakers are right in thinking there’s not enough drama in the jazz life to sustain an audience’s attention for 90 minutes; maybe the exigencies of the form mean they do have to cook the books. If life was fair (hah!), critics would be forced to say what they would put in the film instead of car chases and one-dimensional foils. Ok. How about filling that time by having the audience sit in the theatre with nothing on the screen, just listening to the music of Miles Davis (and this from a guy who’s a member of SAG). Ay, caramba; quelle idee.
Miles Davis: If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude, man.
[knocks on Davis’s front door and Davis opens it]
Miles Davis: Hi.
Dave Brill: Miles Davis, My name’s Dave Brill from Rolling Stone magazine. I’m here to do your comeback story.
Miles Davis: Okay. Move back a little bit.
Dave Brill: Yeah.
[suddenly Davis punches Dave in the nose]