[Screen It]

"MILES AHEAD"
(2016) (Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A reporter tries to get a story about a legendary but mercurial jazz musician who hasn't delivered any new music in years.
PLOT:
It's the 1970s and legendary jazz musician Miles Davis (DON CHEADLE) hasn't delivered any new music in years, although rumors abound about a session tape he's recorded but no one's heard. Wannabe music reporter Dave Brill (EWAN McGREGOR) -- pretending to be working for Rolling Stone -- manages to convince Miles to let him into his life, if anything for the promise of being able to get him the best cocaine in town.

Others are interested in the session tape as well, including music manager Harper Hamilton (MICHAEL STUHLBARG) who sees his young client, Junior (KEITH STANFIELD), as the legend's likely successor. But while dealing with all of that, Miles is fixated on his failed marriage to dancer Frances Taylor (EMAYATZY CORINEALDI) years earlier, a romance that was doomed by his drug use, womanizing ways and erratic behavior.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
I grew up listening to a wide array of music in the 1960s and '70s. That ranged from old school country music on the radio and via "Hee Haw," to the champagne music of "The Lawrence Welk Show" and Christmas classics by Andy Williams and the like. There was also tunes by The Monkees, The Partridge Family, Jan & Dean (by way of Batman) and thanks to introductions by others, songs by Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Edgar Winter, Simon & Garfunkel, Billy Preston and more.

One genre I wasn't introduced to until much later in life was jazz music. I didn't avoid it, but simply had no exposure, at least as far as I can remember. Accordingly, while I can name a number of jazz musicians and their work, I can't say I've ever owned any of their albums or created a Pandora station of said music.

Thus, when I heard that actor Don Cheadle had directed, co-written and starred in a film, "Miles Ahead," about jazz legend Miles Davis, I had no real reaction, unlike the past anticipation of wanting to see "Ray" or "Walk the Line."

To his credit, Cheadle -- who co-wrote the screenplay with Steven Baigelman and added an entirely fictitious half to the 100-minute film -- eschews the typical biopic formula, playbook and story outline. We don't see the musician in his early formative years of (likely) having some sort of troubled childhood and having to overcome obstacles (including racism) to reach the pinnacle of success.

Instead, the filmmaker has the story start with an on-camera interview of the protagonist who states that if one is going to tell a story, do so with some attitude. And thus begins a back and forth story between just two time periods. The current one takes place in the 1970s when the musician has holed up amongst his booze and drugs and apparently is withholding his latest session tape from his record label.

Enter a reporter (the always charming Ewan McGregor) who wants to do a story on the artist's comeback, even if that man isn't looking for that. With the promise of access to the best coke in town, he gets in on the good side of Davis and gets to hang with the musician and see a day in his life. That includes interactions with some of those record label people, a determined producer, and a talented if shy musician who's on the up and coming ladder to success.

During all of that material that plays like something of an odd couple caper film (especially when said session tapes end up stolen), Cheadle cuts back and forth to the 1950s where Davis is a more proficient and reliable musician who wins over the heart of a young dancer (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and eventually makes her his wife. But his controlling ways, substance abuse, womanizing tendencies and seeds of paranoia threaten to undermine their union.

This half of the film is played more seriously, and thus the cutting back and forth ends up giving the entire production something of a discordant feel. I'm assuming the filmmaker is doing that on purpose to give it the feel of a jazz song with similarly unusual beats and arrangements. But as a viewing experience, it leaves something to be desired.

That said, Cheadle is terrific in the part. While I don't know enough about the real life man to make any accurate assessments of the portrayal (beyond the physical appearance aspects), the performance felt right to me in both parts of the story. And McGregor, as always, creates a character that easily engages the viewer.

While viewer response will likely vary, I only wish the film had that same effect. As an overall offering, I found it okay, but at no point did any of it blow me away. In the end, I'll likely view "Miles Ahead" just like I do all jazz music. I appreciate the work and artistry that goes into it, but it's unlikely I'll ever put it on my playlist. The film rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed March 3, 2016 / Posted April 8, 2016