By Will Barber Taylor
Breaking the mould of the standard music biopic, Don Cheadle stars, co-produces and directs the biographical story of the infamous jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis. Telling the story of Davis’s rise to fame, Cheadle’s directorial debut deviates from the usual cradle-to-the-grave narrative.
Instead, the film echoes the haphazard melody of a New York jazz jam session as it follows the turbulent and unpredictable life of one of the 70s jazz scene’s most prominent figures. Set predominantly in 1970s Manhattan, the film explores the heady early days of Davis’s success along with the darker, reclusive times battling the addiction that almost ended his life and his struggle to overcome the creative block which threatened to end his career.
Miles Ahead, unlike most biographical films, is never black and white. The whole film brims with exuberant colour and flair like Davis himself. Davis, as presented by the film, is wracked with a self-destructive streak that won’t let anyone help him. Yet his belief in his music and the purpose of it – not to merely entertain or be “jazz music” but to be more than that, to reflect society itself. Indeed, Davis refers to his own work as “social music” and he’s right; Davis isn’t trying to recapture the heyday of jazz but trying to present his own view of the world through his music. Davis’ music is at the heart of the film as it is when Davis feels broken and unable to face the world, that his music reflects this. Therefore, Davis’ music truly is social – it is a part of his own social interaction with other people.
Don Cheadle’s sublime direction of the film keeps with the distinctiveness of Davis’ music. Cheadle mixes forms with an effortless subtly that puts other directors to shame. He weaves drama, comedy and biography into a tapestry of musical delight. Of particular note, is Cheadle’s direction of the sequence in which Davis retrieves his session tape. Cheadle elegantly combines the music with the quick camera cuts to create a tense and yet brilliantly funny sequence.
Cheadle’s acting is also superb. He wholly inhabits Davis and makes great use of Davis’ well known smoky voice. Cheadle exudes the cool persona that Davis had in real life, whilst also portraying his deeper emotions to great effect.
Ultimately Cheadle’s biographical film reflect Davis’ life perfectly – it is bold, vivid and is totally in love with the music he produced. I’d recommend seeing Miles Ahead, if only to hear performances of some of the best music you are likely to hear.