Film Review: Miles Ahead (USA, 2016)

Miles Ahead might have a few tricks (and some strong casting) up its sleeve, but it never quite manages to triumph.

Set in the late 1970s, the very-loose biopic introduces us a disillusioned and drug-addled Davis (Don Cheadle)who hasn’t made music in almost five years – despite the best efforts of his label. When a recording of one of his unreleased music is stolen, he joins forces with the cavalier music journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) to get it back. However, the film is not nearly as simple as that sounds.

It’s as interested in the ultimate fate of the missing session tapes as it is the path that led Miles to his disappearance from the public eye. Rather than employ discrete flashbacks, the film blurs the past and present together. Sudden noises will jolt the film back and forth between the decades – with Davis’ haircut proving a remarkable anchor.

It’s a disorienting technique at first but one that yields interesting results. It’s fascinating to watch the persona of Miles Davis unfurl itself and observer how the relationships in Miles life are both the cause and effect of his music.

Cheadle’s performance as Davis is the dramatic centerpiece of the film and he delivers. He’s in stunning form here, conveys a persona that’s just as magnetic in its ambition as it is volatile. Miles isn’t always likable but he’s always very interesting to watch.

Accompanying Cheadle is McGregor’s Brill, who makes a great partner-in-crime for Davis. He brings some fun European charm to an otherwise very American movie, playing off stereotypes about music journalists in the interim.

The direction here can initially appear unfocused but there’s an impressionistic attention-to-detail that the film invites you to notice. Like Davis, it can take some getting used to. However, the film’s biggest flaw is that never leverages all these fascinating components. Sure, it’s fascinating to watch the film use Miles music to express himself and watch him slip between his present and past but there’s never really a payoff or endgame in mind for them.

There’s a lot to appreciate in Miles Ahead. The performances are stellar, the costuming delightful and the dialogue – especially when delivered by a raspy Cheadle – pitch-perfect. It remains a colorful romp of a film – even if it takes a lot of artistic liberties that some may irk away from.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Miles Ahead is out in limited cinemas from June 16th.