The biopic genre has one central challenge: how do we capture someone’s life story and the preserve the legacy they left behind. As a result, it has become stagnant, saturated by rise-and-fall stories that attempt to whitewash the more complicated details of the subject’s life that make a portrait interesting.
In Miles Ahead, director and main star Don Cheadle is more interested in the late chapter of Davis’ life, after the success and the revolution he instigated in music had washed away leaving a mentally fractured, cocaine-addled hermit lost in memories and unable to perform. The film takes place over the course of two days and is set in the late 70s after Davis has been on a year hiatus from music. Columbia Records and the world are pressuring him to get back into the studio but he continues to ask for their patience. He has one session tape that has brought Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill (Ewan MacGregor) and a slew of nefarious producers wanting the comeback story or to make some money.
A simmering soundtrack from Robert Glasper and untethered, grainy cinematography really help recreate the atmosphere of grimy 70s New York. Cheadle adopts Davis’ signature strep throat bark and his other-worldly wardrobe, ultimately adding a layer of authenticity, though the effect takes a couple of scenes to gain momentum. The structure of the film is inspired by Miles’ music: the flashbacks are like a key change or an improvised solo that take the narrative down a poignant detour. Even an outrageous, almost Blaxploitation-inspired car chase and gun fight can’t derail the film as the climax sees all of Miles’ memories come together, his mind on the verge of collapsing.
Don Cheadle overcomes his shortcomings as a novice to deliver an effervescent, warts-and-all vignette of an artist struggling to reinvent himself.
Miles Ahead does not have a UK release date yet.
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Watch a clip from Miles Ahead here: