Things can go one of two ways when a celebrity has a passion project. If it’s good, it’s called a “passion project.” But when it’s bad, the label that frequently gets ascribed is “vanity project” (e.g. THE POSTMAN, BATTLEFIELD EARTH, AFTER EARTH). Now, typically I abhor defining films as such because it feels so dismissive of the filmmaking process. When you think about it, just because something’s a hit doesn’t make it any less of a vanity project than a bad film. The latest film to walk the line (pun intended), teetering between vanity and passion project territory, is star-co-writer-director Don Cheadle’s MILES AHEAD. The film takes a look at a sliver of time in Miles Davis’ life when he withdrew from society. At times more of a buddy cop action film than a surrealist reinvention of the traditional music biopic, the film is a mixed bag. Much like jazz itself, tonal notes scat all over the place – and the assembled product doesn’t produce much of a song.
Inspired by true-life events, Cheadle and co-writer Steven Baigelman (who work from a story also by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson) give an impressionistic recounting of the icon’s time away from the spotlight – a time filled with creative strife, physical pain, drugs, booze and sycophantic personalities. Right in the middle of his career in the 1970’s, on a successful plateau from his meteoric rise to worldwide acclaim, the jazz artist became somewhat of a recluse. So it’s with a lot of nerve and gumption that music journalist Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) shows up at Davis’ door, begging for an interview, hoping to learn the truth about the self-imposed sabbatical. However, he gets dragged into a much larger adventure with the musical genius – one that requires the pair to recover a stolen tape of Davis’ latest material. As the dynamic duo get to know each other, we find out that Davis’ eccentricities were fueled by his crumbling relationship with his muse/ wife Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi).
Cheadle’s film is really “two films for the price of one.” The budding friendship between the reporter and the icon is the strongest storyline of the film. Refreshing and vibrant, it’s an escalating wacky misadventure, and we mostly enjoy the ride. McGregor and Cheadle have an indisputable electric chemistry. However, Cheadle and Baigleman’s material holds back from genuinely embracing the chaos in the fictionalized narrative, leaving the audience to feel cheated of pure greatness. They also don’t follow through with conviction on the ALL ABOUT EVE-ing of Davis by a superstar on the rise, Junior (Lakeith Lee Stanfield, who turns in a riveting performance in his all-too brief screen time). It’s too pat of an end for his character’s evolution.
Predictable biopic plot beats are then inserted, interrupting the ensuing antics. I loved seeing Cheadle’s artistry with transitional techniques (thanks in part to his skilled editors John Axelrad and Kayla M. Emter) seamlessly blend the two stories together with aesthetic panache. Roberto Schaefer’s cinematography lends a beautiful layer – a fascinating juxtaposition of grit and polish. However, the “B-story,” that of Davis’ doomed romance with Frances, falls prey to the inevitability that our hero will booze and womanize. It’s a very familiar narrative. Despite the lackluster material afforded her, Corinealdi gives a stellar, star-making performance filled with pathos and depth.
It’s hard to sympathize, let alone empathize, with a hero who pisses it all away and makes no effort toward redemption. Finding salvation in art is an admirable sentiment, but no further insight is gleaned. The impact also loses its luster beyond the walls of the theater. Plus, there’s an eye-roll-inducing moment at the end when the filmmakers put a question mark at the end of Davis’ life span. It’s trite, cringe-worthy and an ineffective move I wish they hadn’t taken.
Jazz is a subjective category of music anyways. It seems perfectly fitting that the legend’s biopic is also offered up for subjective criticism.
2.5 out of 5
MILES AHEAD opens in limited release in New York and Los Angeles on April 1 with a slow roll out to follow.