“Miles Ahead” Reveals the Artist That Is Cheadle

I saw this film at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. The review, below, is an amalgam and expansion of two separate capsule reviews I have previously published: one on my blog, and one for Bmoreart.

Miles Ahead

Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, 2015)

In his directorial debut, actor Don Cheadle (Traitor) mostly avoids the clichés of the biographical picture and takes genuine creative risks, choosing to focus on a particular moment in time rather than an entire lifespan. His subject? Jazz musician Miles Davis (1926-1991). Cheadle’s approach leads to something much more impressionistic and elliptical than your standard-issue Hollywood biopic; it’s an improvisatory riff that would no doubt make Davis proud. Flashing back and forth between different eras of Davis’s life – yet grounded in the late 1970s, when Davis was going through a particularly bad cocaine-fueled depression – Cheadle keeps us as disoriented as Davis most likely was at that time. He also uses and blends the conventions of other genres – the action thriller, buddy movie and gangster drama – to lend Miles Ahead a texture and feel uniquely its own.

Cheadle, himself, plays Davis, and is riveting in the role. When we first meet our hero, he is deep into booze and drugs at the end of a self-imposed exile that began in the mid-1970s. Ewan McGregor (The Impossible) – a completely fictional free-lance journalist from Rolling Stone – is interviewing him, and just as we settle into a montage of images on a vibrating television screen, we smash-cut back to a car chase and gunfire. And so the film goes, jumping around in a style that initially confuses but eventually brings all the disparate elements together at the end to show us, warts and all, what made Davis both great and awful. Human beings are complex, and a monster can still be a genius. This is a movie to be watched by those who love both movies and music.

If the film has one major weakness, it is that addition of fiction to the proceedings (which Cheadle says he did because he couldn’t get financial backing without a white co-star). McGregor’s character becomes a significant part of the plot, beyond that opening interview. We tune into biopics because they purport to show us the real man/woman behind the myth. Yet how much truth can really survive a compressed version of any human being’s life? Perhaps it is not the worst sin in the world to take overt liberties, if the underlying narrative arc still reveals something honest about that person’s trajectory. Still, while I enjoyed the energy and panache with which Cheadle tells his story, his approach may not be for all. However, even if you cannot abide fiction in your docudrama, I think you’ll still have to admire Cheadle’s command of craft. If nothing else, Miles Ahead reveals the birth of a true director.

SXSW2016, Part 3 (Wednesday-Thursday, March 16-17)

And so the week at SXSW has continued. Since the last post, I have had only two more pieces published on Hammer to Nail – an interview with the director and producer of The Dwarvenaut and a review of The Bandit – but you can expect many more pieces soon. Here are my capsule reviews of three other films for which I will not be publishing reviews on that site.

Miles Ahead

Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, 2015)

Actor Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), in his directorial debut, has crafted a brilliant cinematic portrait of jazz musician Miles Davis (1926-1991). At times funny, at others tragic, the film is an improvisatory riff on the great innovator that would make the master proud. Kudos to Cheadle for refusing to make a standard biopic; instead, he has opted for an impressionistic approach that flashes back and forth between different eras in the man’s life. Cheadle, himself, plays Davis, and is riveting in the role. When we first meet our hero, he is deep into booze and cocaine at the end of a self-imposed exile that began in the mid-1970s. Ewan McGregor (Beginners) – a completely fictional free-lance journalist from Rolling Stone – is interviewing him, and just as we settle into a montage of images on a vibrating television screen, we smash cut back to a car chase and gunfire. And so the film goes, jumping around in a style that initially confuses but eventually brings all the disparate elements together at the end to show us, warts and all, what made Davis both great and awful. Human beings are complex, and a monster can still be a genius. A film to be watched by all who love both movies and music.

In Pursuit of Silence

In Pursuit of Silence (Patrick Shen, 2015)

In today’s world, it is harder than ever to escape noise. Some people react to this situation with a vow of silence, like Greg Hindy, one of the many interesting characters we meet in this awe-inspiring new documentary from Patrick Shen (La Source). Others study the phenomenon, such as George Prochnik, author of the book In Pursuit of Silence (from which this film borrows its title). Shen takes us on a global journey – beautifully photographed – in which he explores what it means to be a human being, genetically predisposed to a pre-industrial universe, in a landscape of increasingly loud machines. With a musical score that emphasizes silence as much as it accompanies it, the film even dwells, for a bit, on John Cage‘s seminal 1952 composition 4’33”, in which a pianist walks up to a piano, sets it up, and then does nothing for four and a half minutes. The movie is a majestic achievement in which art and philosophy are blended in a perfect meditative mix. It’s an important film for our time.

SXSW2016_2016-03-17_Pee-wee premiere

Producer Judd Apatow, Star/Co-Writer Paul Reubens, Co-Writer Paul Rust and Director John Lee

What a joy it was to be at the world premiere of the new Pee-wee Herman film! The audience went wild as soon as Paul Reubens – aka, Pee-wee Herman – came out on stage. The film went live on Netflix a few hours after the screening, so everyone can now watch it (and you should), but I am so happy I was there for that first night.

Pee-wee's Big Holiday

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (John Lee, 2016)

To be honest, I was too old to truly appreciate the phenomenon that was Pee-wee’s Playhouse when it hit it big in the 1980s. But the first feature film, in 1985, starring the titular character –  Pee-wee’s Big Adventure – and directed by Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands), in his feature debut, did make it on to my radar. Still, I was never a huge fan. I was nevertheless dismayed by the persecution that Reubens suffered after his bust in a porn theater in 1991, as he seemed like an otherwise decent enough human being. Well, let us not shed too many tears for the man, as a close study of his biography reveals the many projects – Pee-wee-related and otherwise – that have kept him busy since that unfortunate incident. And now he’s back in full force with a new cinematic adventure for Pee-wee. And it’s a winner. With jokes both dumb and sophisticated, made with zip and pizzazz, the movie should delight Pee-wee aficionados of all ages. Check it out. You’ll be sure to have a good time.

Be sure to read my first and second posts on SXSW2016!