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Miles Ahead of the Norm   2 comments

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Moments before Miles Ahead graced the silver screen I sat in an empty theater with my mind racing with anticipation. I was excited, nervous, mostly embarrassed that I was the only twenty something in town interested in seeing a Jazz biopic. But there were bigger fish to fry here.

As a music biopic junkie this is the white whale I’ve been waiting for. Ever since I discovered the incredible works of Miles Davis during my sophomore year of high school I knew there had to be a great movie somewhere in his life. I’ve always considered his work a catalyst for opening up my taste in music and always thought a movie would have the same influence on the rest of the world. Easy enough.

At around the same time I was being blown away from hearing “Kind of Blue” for the first time, the smash hit biopic of Ray Charles was released. Yes it was somewhat depressing and hard to watch such a beloved artist do such un-PG-like things, but the music was fun, and Jamie Foxx was absolutely electric as Ray. A year later Johnny Cash’s biopic Walk the Line would follow in the same successful fashion. Jon Stewart called it a great remake of “Ray with white people.” Biopics were hot.

Its been over ten years since those movies came out and the music biopic genre has sort of been beaten to death with every cliche imaginable. I mean, did anyone really say to themselves, “Yes, we need a Bobby Darin movie!” or “Hey, I think Mark Anthony and J-Lo would absolutely kill it as Hector Lavoe and his wife!” But they keep coming and they keep sucking. Sometimes we get a treat like I’m Not There Yet or Get On Up, but as entertaining as they may be it’s still hard to escape the dreaded cliches of a music biopic. They even made a movie called Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story which perfectly pokes fun at every cringe worthy trope the genre has to offer: messed up childhood, rise to success, downfall to drugs, infidelity, and then a cheery recovery.

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This is where my nervousness for Miles Ahead comes into play. To be honest I never thought this movie would get made or even wanted it after all this time. I recall Don Cheadle being attached to direct, write, and star in this project for nearly a decade. He seemed like a perfect choice to play Miles. He had the look, range and the coolness down perfectly. But what studio would want to push a biopic of a Jazz musician that the average film goer probably hasn’t even heard of? The backing for the film was definitely an issue, but not as much as Cheadle’s unclear vision for this passion project. He knew an artist like Miles deserved more than just a run-of-the-mill crapfest we’ve seen time after time. And Mr. Cheadle made damn sure that wasn’t the case.

After pitching around ideas with the Davis family, Cheadle finally realized that the most important thing that this film needed to get right was the essence of Miles Davis. In the first scene we see an old Miles lecturing his interviewer: “If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude. Don’t be all corny with this s***.” Suddenly I felt confident this was going to be something different.

We start off in the five year silent period of Miles Davis when he stopped releasing new material. He’s secluded himself into a hermit lifestyle in a messy New York apartment battling a creativity block of epic proportions. Aside from a few flashbacks this is about as historically accurate as the film gets right and deliberately so.

From there we’re introduced to David Brill (Ewan McGregor), a fictional Rolling Stone writer, peskily trying to get the inside scoop on Miles’s silence. They eventually become accomplices. Through this relationship we get some insight on Miles’s past flashing back to his genius work as a young composer and the struggles with his relationships and drug addiction throughout the years. While the flashbacks can tend to feel a bit cliche they blend appropriately with what Miles is dealing with in his current state as a tortured artist. We then find out there’s a secret tape session that Miles may have worked on at Columbia Records. Word gets out about this tape and people want it. Bad people. This is where the movie takes a real left turn. It’s now become a straight up caper with gangsters and gunfights.

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In the midst of all this absurdity, involving one of my music heroes engaging in drive-by shootings that never really happened, I found myself completely immersed in all of it. Thanks to Don Cheadle’s masterful portrayal of Miles and his debut work behind the camera which is nothing short of brilliant. It all works on the same level that Davis’s music works; It’s brilliant but it’s always on the move looking for unique change. The 100 minute flow of Miles Ahead mirrors this exactly. Ewan McGregor mentioned in a real Rolling Stone interview, “It’s less a Miles biopic than an attempt to cast Miles in a caper flick that he *might* like to have been part of.” That’s a hell of a way to change it up.

Miles Ahead may not be perfect in every capacity, but it’s totally committed to what it set out to do. The music selection represents Miles’s essence spot on and is complimented by superb shooting from debut director Don Cheadle. And while some may have problems with the authenticity of the story, it never fails to be an interesting glimpse into the mind of a true genius. “Let’s be musical about this s***. Be wrong strong, otherwise lay the f*** out,” says Cheadle as Davis coaching his band before a studio recording. Thus sums up the ambition of this film perfectly. Miles Davis would eventually make his come back in the early 80’s experimenting with something different, engaging, and miles ahead of the norm.

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