Saturday, April 30, 2016

Don Cheadle kills it in "Miles Ahead"

If you don't know anything about the life or music of jazz legend Miles Davis going into "Miles Ahead," you won't know much more walking out of it.

Don Cheadle's film – he co-wrote, directed and stars in it – might be pigeon-holed as a bio-pic, but it sure doesn't fit any of the accepted parameters of the genre.

For one thing, most of it is made up. For another, it skips Davis's childhood and early formation as an artist, and ignores important collaborators and key people in his life.

Then again, its protagonist was a rule-breaker of the first order, a restless and inventive musician who said, accurately, "Well, I guess I changed music five or six times."

It makes sense that anyone making a movie about the man and the artist should at least take a stab at reinventing the genre, even if it means adding a heavy dose of fiction. As Davis says to an interviewer at the beginning of the film, "If you're going to tell a story, come with some attitude, man."

But if facts don't get in the way of this story, what you will know about Miles Davis is a kind of truth. Cheadle, in an exultant, career-capping performance, shows us the Davis we might have met if we'd been lucky enough to sneak into his apartment in the late 1970s -- a period when he stopped making music, became a recluse and almost disappeared into drugs and paranoia.

That's precisely the plot Cheadle and co-writer Steven Baigelman cooked up for their portrait of Davis. A reporter for Rolling Stone (Ewan McGregor, nailing the charming rascal role), goes to interview Davis, pretty much sneaks into his apartment, and ends up as his sidekick in a weird heist movie, one complete with stolen treasure, screeching car chases, guns and leering bad guys.

Along the way, the reporter attempts an interview. Davis doesn't cooperate, of course, but it leads him into reveries of the past and memories of his first wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a stunning dancer who became his muse. Frances gave up her art and her identity when he demanded it, getting in return his infidelities and abuse. The movie suggests that when she left him, so did his music. (True? Who knows?)

These flashbacks take us to the 1950s, when Davis was both the ultimate cool cat of jazz and an intense and driven virtuoso -- facets that Cheadle slips between as fluidly as vividly as the music Davis made. In fact, some of the best scenes in the movie take place in his studio, where Davis works with musicians and composes brilliant pieces on the fly – recalling the studio scenes in the similarly inventive Brian Wilson bio-pic, "Love & Mercy."

But while "Love & Mercy" broke a lot of the genre rules, too, it was a far more successful movie – in large part because most of it was true, even as it departed from standard form.

"Miles Ahead," in attempting to mirror Davis's music with an impressionistic, free-form style, is too often a confusing jumble of flash-backs and digressions.

Cheadle worked on the movie for 10 years, and worked hard to secure financing for it. He delivers a spectacular performance. It's clear that "Miles Ahead" is the very definition of the term labor of love.

Alas, much like its difficult, cranky, unpredictable and genius subject, it is a very hard movie to love.

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