Nathaniel reporting on the closing night film of the New York Film Festival
Don Cheadle has been an esteemed actor for a full twenty years now. His big reputation began with his breakout turn in The Devil with the Blue Dress (1995) and kept building. Somewhere along the way, despite a Best Actor nomination for Hotel Rwanda (2004) the leading man career didn't materialize (apart from his 4 time Emmy nominated gig on Showtime's House of Lies). The sturdy ensemble player attempts to right that wrong by producing, writing, directing and starring (whew) in a Miles Davis biopic.
Cue the trumpets!
And here we are. Miles Ahead was given the honor of closing this year's New York Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film.
It's tough to argue that Cheadle hasn't earned a spotlight as bright as this. [More...]
Somewhere along our cinematic way, the biopic became the ne plus ultra of star vehicles in contemporary Hollywood. No other genre works as well for both reputation boosts and Oscar bait and Cheadle's only been nominated once! Enter Miles Davis, juicy role. The legendary jazz musician had the kind of life that routinely makes movie biographers horny, hitting every sweet spot: one-of-a-kind talent, huge fame, drug addictions, intense marriage turned sour, and the ability to get back up again when knocked down for easy arcs.
The movie springs forth from an interview with a reporter named Dave (Ewan McGregor, another leading man who rarely gets the leading spotlights he deserves) who wants the scoop on Miles Davis's comeback (the musician hasn't recorded in years when the movie begins). "Springs forth" is carefully chosen since "centered around" or "framed by," more traditional screenwriting structures, don't totally apply. Miles Ahead has no center apart from Cheadle's commanding presence and his raspy Davis whisper. And it would be nearly impossible to "frame" something as unruly as this. It's the story of the interview except when it's not. It's the story of the comeback except details of said comeback are extremely vague. If you're feeling generous the movie is structured like improvisational riff as befits the subject of jazz. If you're not feeling it, the movie is simply all over the place. It careens from one tone to another, even one genre to another: It's a Romantic Drama! No, it's a Stuffy biopic. Or perhaps a cynical Showbiz Tell-all. All of the above but also (and boy does it go wrong here) a madcap action comedy!
At least twice during the movie Miles ask Dave to cut the, and I quote, "corny bullshit" but Miles Ahead indulges in exactly that all too often. And I'm not talking about the already somewhat-hated title (that's actually the name of a Miles Davis album so it's semi-excusable if still corny). Edits from scene to scene / usually hopping back and forth between past to in-movie present (or previous-scenes-recent-past-within-movie-present) can often be described as "cute" in their gimmicky connections. Worst of all there are some hoary-ass haunted memories to flashbacks that recall Iron Lady at its most Jim Broadbent's Ghost dire.
The acting is, thankfully, where it's at with Cheadle engaging as Miles Davis and often unexpectedly funny, Emayatzy Corinealdi, radiant in closeups, does what she can with the all-too-familiar stock character of the long suffering wife and Ewan McGregor gamely matches Cheadle's tonal volleys, ever the generous screen partner.
It's depressing to call Miles Ahead an obviously amateurish movie from respect to Cheadle's clear talent. But what's that they say about breaking the rules in the arts? You have to master the rules in the first place to know when to do so. Don Cheadle is a great actor but the direction and writing are competent at very best and unfortunately veer mostly towards the manic.
The first sequence alone employs flash cuts, strange sound mix choices, jittery hand-held camera work and a darting camera visual strategy that can best be described as "trying to decide what to look at!" No visual strategies stick around long enough during this freeform approach to lend the movie coherence or even to justify it as a cohesive expression of Miles experimental musicianship.
Don Cheadle holds the trumpet beautifully. What might have been had he not also been wearing so many hats?
Oscar Chances: With the right release strategy and enough generosity from star-loving precursors (the reviews are all over the place) a lead acting nomination is a possibility, though nothing to bank on.