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Film Review: Miles Ahead (2016)




Directed by: Don Cheadle
Starring: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi

Miles Ahead is an American biographical film based on the life of legendary Jazz musician Miles Davis. The screenplay was written by Don Cheadle and Steven Baigelman. Baigelman also wrote the screenplay for the 2014 biopic Get on Up, about the godfather of soul James Brown.

Biopics have always been a popular staple in cinema and their popularity has not diminished – 42, Everest, Black Mass, Bridge of Spies, Genius, Eddie the Eagle – I could go on and on. Biopics have always been a very conventional form of filmmaking, telling the lives of their subject in a traditional linear narrative. However, in the past few years this traditionally orthodox genre has become more and more experimental, breaking the codes and conventions of the biopic. Miles Ahead reflects the increasing adventurousness and unconventionality of this typically conventional genre.

The film starts with Miles Davis sat down in front of a camera for an interview. We hear Ewan McGregor’s voice off screen asking Davis about his life and his music. Davis is vague and defensive, and then he says:
“Don’t be all corny with this shit, if you are going to tell a story come with some attitude man”- Don Cheadle as Miles Davis
To which the interviewer (off camera) replies:
“Ok then since this is about you, how would you start it?”- Ewan McGregor as Dave Brill a journalist for Rolling Stone
Miles Davis then picks up his trumpet and then as the Jazz music plays the scene abruptly cuts to another scene and this is how we are introduced to Miles Davis.

Miles Ahead definitely comes with attitude in its approach to the biopic. The film is entertaining and at times rather amusing, but if I could use just one word to describe this film it would be ‘chaotic’. The chaotic randomness of the film is fitting of a Jazz musician improvising with a band on stage; you just feel it.

Miles Ahead showcases a very experimental form of biographical storytelling, giving a whole new meaning to ‘unconventional biopic’. Even similar films such as Beyond the Sea (2004) and Get on Up with their unique approach to this, in the past stale and predictable genre, does not compare to the unpredictability of Miles Ahead. Most biopics aim to build up a detailed picture of their subject so by the end you feel like you know this person and their life story. You should not expect to get the same out of watching Miles Ahead. After watching it myself at Chapter arts centre in Cardiff, I still could not tell you much about Miles Davis; where he’s from, his childhood, how he died, how he got into music, nothing.

It is for this reason that I don’t think you can call Miles Ahead a biopic. To me it is more an expressionist portrait. One of the markers of expressionism is that it works to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express the meaning of emotional experience rather than physical reality. Jazz is after all about evoking a mood and expressing inner emotions through music.

To sum up, Miles Ahead is an offbeat chaotic film about Jazz legend Miles Davis that refuses to follow the rules of a conventional biopic. If you love Jazz music and films that offer an experience rather than passive viewing then this film is for you. However, if you like to get the details and facts of someone’s life and an understanding of who they were then this movie might disappoint in that sense.


Written by Sophie Watts

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