SXSW Film 2016 Review: MILES AHEAD

By Mark Saldana 

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars) 

To set one’s musical artist biopic apart from many others that have preceded it, is a difficult task for any filmmaker attempting an entry in the well-worn genre.  Some films like Walk the Line, Get on Up, and Ray have managed to stand-out with superb performances by their leads, show-stopping set pieces, and emotional depth.  Others suffer from poor writing and development of their subjects, questionable casting choices, and the tendency to follow familiar plot development clichés.  Writer, director, and star Don Cheadle seems to have put his heart and soul into his Miles Davis portrait Miles Ahead and even though the film does succeed mostly in what it offers, something is missing.

Inspired by actual events, Cheadle absolutely shines as Miles Davis, the legendary Jazz artist whom the world will forever remember as an incredible and incendiary trumpet player with an incendiary personality to match.  During a rather dark time in his life, after a lengthy hiatus from recording and performing, Davis gets approached by Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), a journalist who wants to know why an incredible artist such as Davis has been living mostly in seclusion and not producing any more music.  Brill chases after Davis and gets a glimpse as to what pains him and why he’s been hiding for too long.

With Miles Ahead, Cheadle, who has already proven himself as a talented actor, shows that he is more than capable of writing and directing his own movies.  Working on the screenplay and story with writers Steve Baigelman, Stephen J. Rivele, and Christopher Wilkinson, Cheadle refreshingly offers audiences a biopic that deviates from the typical formula.  Rather than offering a chronologically-ordered history of Davis’ life and career, Cheadle and his writers mainly focus on one particular time of the musician’s life with various flashbacks to his past experiences that bring him to that moment in time.

While I do appreciate this atypical approach, I feel that Davis deserves a more complete biopic.  Mostly focusing on this dark period of Davis’ life leaves out some of the incredible musical breakthroughs of his career, as well as the impact his artistry had on music of multiple genres.  Audiences will get a glimpse at Davis’ passion, his provocative and dissentious personality and some of the demons that floored him, but I feel that Jazz icon deserves a slightly greater share of the brighter moments of his life.

Regardless of the short-sightedness of the film, what audiences do get are some truly amazing scenes with Cheadle and McGregor delivering some magnificent performances.  The two actors share a wonderful chemistry together turning the duo into the most unlikely movie buddies.  The film also features solid turns by Michael Stuhlbarg, Keith Stanfield, and Christina Karis.  The lovely and captivating Emayatzi Corinealdi performs beautifully as Davis’ love of his life, Frances Taylor.

Cheadle presented his film at the SXSW Film Festival to an enamored audience at the Paramount Theater.  And Cheadle definitely deserved the crowd’s adoration.  I have to say I’m impressed because it’s difficult enough to write and direct a film, but to be the star as well takes a multi-talented artist to pull it off. During the Q & A session Cheadle discussed how difficult it was to make the film and I hope the experience doesn’t deter him from directing other movie.  He has the gift to pull it nicely.

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