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August 2016

Miles Ahead

cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Keith Stanfield, and Michael Stuhlbarg

director: Don Cheadle

100 minutes (15) 2015
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Icon DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by J.C. Hartley

Miles Ahead

It's been a long courtship for me and jazz, and let's not pretend we're best buds even now. Yes, I went through the usual adolescent stage of acquiring Jelly-Roll Morton and Fats Waller LPs; I've got Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, I've got a Blue Note compilation on CD, I actually adore Donald Byrd, but mainly because his stuff sounds like the soundtrack to cop movies from the 1970s, and I've an uneasy relationship with a stack of Soft Machine albums.

I can remember listening to the BBC playing Shorty Rogers playing Martians Go Home on a jazz programme on the radio at my Mum's, and watching Oscar Peterson on BBC TV in the 1970s with my Gran, both of us patiently waiting for the melody to re-emerge from his improvisation. I also remember watching Charlie Mingus, before TV close-down, playing and singing, "Who say's Mama's Little Baby loves shortening bread? Mama's little baby loves caviar, Mama's little baby loves champagne!" And yes, I've got Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue, but I'm a lazy listener and I grew up on rock; maybe I should get Bitches Brew?

So what happens in this movie? There's much sound and fury but it doesn't seem to amount to much. We see Miles (Don Cheadle), laid-up, hooked up, during his 'hiatus' of 1975-9. Crashing into his life comes Dave Braden (Ewan MacGregor), claiming to be a music journalist from Rolling Stone and looking to make his reputation with the Miles Davis story. Miles is in conflict with Columbia Records who want some new material in return for bank-rolling his retirement. In actual fact Columbia paid Davis a regular stipend during his musical exile, regularly releasing compilation albums and studio session material from the archive while they waited for him to re-emerge.

In the film, Miles accuses Columbia of thinking they own his music. Can anyone own the artistic output of an artist? I suspect most of us are negotiable; it beats being artistic and not getting paid. Davis and Braden go to Columbia's offices where Davis tries to get his pay-cheque; they meet Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), a sleazy promoter-come-producer and his protégé Junior (Keith Stanfield), an aspiring young trumpeter very much in the Davis mould.

Braden helps Miles score some coke, and the pair start to bond, and later, during a party at Davis's apartment, Braden has an opportunity to steal the tape that everyone assumes Davis has been working on in his studio, but he hesitates. Harper and Junior do steal the tape, and Braden and Davis win it back only to lose it again. They finally get it back in a stagey confrontation at a prize fight, in which the pugilists are replaced by the young Miles Davis and his band performing in the ring, while the older version of Miles and Braden slug it out with Harper and his goons.

Davis, Braden, and Junior return to the apartment where the tape is revealed to contain backing tracks that Davis still cannot play to. After Junior interprets some of the music the pair start to compose together while Braden, who has confronted Davis with his cowardice, looks on admiringly. The film ends with Davis onstage with a new band playing to an ecstatic audience.

Early on, I couldn't care less, later on, I was interested. It's not a great movie but the soundtrack obviously is, and Cheadle is never less than gripping in the central role, completely commanding one's attention. The structure of the film is clearly intended to mirror Davis' improvisational style, jumping the narrative forward at one point to show the shoot-'em-up nonsense surrounding the efforts to win back the tape.

Mostly the narrative switches between the musician's current predicament while, through flashback, charting his courtship, marriage, and ultimately tempestuous relationship with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), as he becomes hooked on painkillers, and increasingly paranoid. We see Frances sacrificing her career for her husband while it is suggested he continues to play around. We see Davis as the victim of racism as the police stage-manage an incident in order to beat him up and take him into custody.

There's no great sense of the musician as innovator, and the 'birth of cool', except of course through the actual soundtrack accompanying the film. It's not intended as a biopic as such, but then it founders by being just a made-up story about an imaginary incident, with nothing to suggest that the central character was a real person who achieved some of the things shown. So, it's curiously un-involving, but with two great performances from Cheadle and Corinealdi.

Extras include the usual commentary, galleries, a Q&A from Sundance festival, and a featurette in which Cheadle's co-stars eulogise the actor/director's channelling of Davis.

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