Making films about famous people is a challenging endeavour. Firstly, the length of a picture can ultimately lessen the scope of said person’s life. Secondly, if there is exploration or meaning to be gained from the experience then usually the moral and sentiment is a vigorous half measure, which is delicate in its attempt to celebrate and showcase the hardships of the subjected icon. Miles Ahead, which is the directorial debut from Don Cheadle, is excellent because it does not suffer from this problem. It also has some good direction and a strong central performance.
The film takes place in the midst of Miles Davies’ five-year retirement while also telling the story of his relationship with Frances Taylor, who is in equal parts his muse and wife. The film is impressionistic in its storytelling moving from flashback to present day in a dreamlike manner. For example, in one scene Miles is watching Frances dance, and she is about to fall over and then suddenly the scene cuts the Rolling Stone writer Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) tripping in a stairway while giving chase to Davies in the present.
One can liken the film’s style to a Jazz piece with impressionism representing the inherent improvisation quality of the musical genre. However, the technique occasionally becomes clumsy as the past and present become muddled in what they are trying to convey. For example, in the third act, we witness Davies’ apparent paranoia that Frances is with another man which is contrasted with him attempting to get back his music tape in the present. As the moments continue, they do not feel seamless or aligned in what they are showcasing, which makes the editing feel incoherent.
However, Cheadle’s subtly is to be applauded. He does construct great moments that are visually indicative of a character or idea. The best example of this is in the aftermath of a violent fight between Miles and Frances. Davies gives Frances an expensive necklace and soon after he gently wraps his arms around her neck. The shot lingers for a good ten seconds, and it strongly illustrates Miles’ controlling nature. He consistently perceives his wife as an instrument which he can easily play, which this moment cleverly conveys in an engaging manner.
Cheadle plays the titular Miles like a hissing cobra that is on the verge of attacking. His words crackle with contempt and a lack of patience, which speak to five years in semi-retirement. However, this prevailing attitude is contrasted with moments of heartfelt emotion which are shown in the smaller moments. One such scene is when Miles is in the elevator of Capital Records. He takes off his glasses and starts looking at the wall which has some of the best-selling album covers of the record label.
In this scene, Cheadle conveys a deep-rooted sadness and a great sense of quiet contemplation of his legacy, which is expressed in his eyes. Additionally, the contrast between Davies in the past and the present is fascinating. In the flashback sequences, the shots of Davies are painterly in composition and innocent in the mood. In some of these scenes, Cheadle brings an indelible charm and infectious energy that is on full display in the moments when he is creating music with his band. It is a brave, bold and ambitious performance, which along with the style of the film tremendously make you feel the power of Miles Davies’ music.