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Miles Ahead

Was he miles ahead of his time? Biopic by Don Cheadle rescues the legacy of late American jazz musician Miles Davis, including little-known aspects of his life as a recluse

‘Miles Ahead’ is the title of one of the most influential albums ever made, the result of a close and profound partnership between the North American jazz musicians Miles Davis and Gil Evans, released in 1957. They had worked together before in ‘Birth of the Cool’, a time when big bands were out of fashion and recorded as a 19-piece band. The Berlinale has lended yet another meaning to “Miles Ahead”, where it became a biopic directed and starred by Don Cheadle, which rejects typical genre conventions.

The late singer Miles Davis did not perform on stage for many years. He was living life as a recluse on New York’s Upper West Side in ther late 1970s. Cocaine was his sole but constant companion, and there was barely a moment without a glass of alcohol or a cigarette. The jazz trumpeter is planning a comeback, but his privacy is interrupted by a sleazy Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor) who keeps reappearing at his door and roughly forces his way into the apartment.

Meanwhile, record producers purloin the tapes of his most recent recordings. Suspecting a plot, he suddenly finds himself embroiled in a wild car chase. On top of all this, memories of his first great love, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), catch up with him. Actor Don Cheadle’s directing debut marks a departure from the conventions of the classical biopic. Concentrating on two days in the life of this exceptional artist who is as angry as he is introverted, Cheadle adopts the musician’s own principles of improvisation in order to gain an inroad into Davis’ true personality. Clad in brightly coloured satin shirts and sporting a frizzy afro, Cheadle playfully embodies the legendary jazz musician he so much admires.

The process of editing is what links music and cinema. In this particular case, it reveals the rhythm of Miles Davis compositions but most of all the confusion set in that particular moment of his life. For instance, flashbacks of moments regarding the past married life between Miles and Frances come to full life. Audiences can see two Miles in the same living room, a younger and a present one – the only difference being his haircut. There is a recurring cutaway image of a morphing mosaic-like figures throughout the movie. This is probably an attempt to illustrate Davis’ abstract paintings.

Miles’ passion for boxing surfaces during the search for the stolen sessions tapes. Audiences see simultaneously one Miles grabbing his tapes back and another Miles playing his trumpet with a band in the centre of the boxing court.

Don Cheadle’s performance is mostly accurate. His husky voice will certainly touch Davis’ fans. He does not sentimentalise Miles’ collapse and involvement with drugs. Issues of racial discrimination pop up as a regular fact, and they do not constitute an artifice for a pamphleteer campaign. The actor has also contributed to the soundtrack, playing and composing some themes. Some of Davis’ real-life collaborators such as Herbie Hancock also took part in the movie.

Miles Ahead premiered at the 66th Berlinale taking place this week in the German capital, and DMovies followed the event live. The film is now showing at the ICA in London, just click on our calendar for more information, and also watch the film trailer below:

By Maysa Moncao - 19-02-2016

Maysa Monção is a Brazilian writer, teacher, translator, editor and art performer who currently lives in London. She has a Masters Degree in Film Studies from Tor Vergata University in Rome, Italy, ...

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