Talking Movies

April 21, 2016

Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle is star, co-writer, and director in this long-gestating passion project, an impressionistic portrait of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

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Miles Davis (Cheadle) at the end of the 1970s is in a funk. And not the good Prince kind, either. Rattling around his chaotic brownstone in an equally self-destructive New York City he just gets high, listens to his old hits on the radio, waits for royalty cheques, and absolutely refuses to even touch the trumpet, much less record any new material. And then Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) barges in, eager for an interview, a cover feature on Miles’ comeback. Miles’ what?! An angry trip to Columbia HQ sees Miles inadvertently set the stage for a crazy nocturnal chase across NYC alongside Brill on the trail of an upcoming jazzman (Keith Stanfield), his manager Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), his scary bodyguard (Brian Bowman), and the purloined tape of Miles’ secret 1978 session. But addled flashbacks slow his progress…

The flashbacks principally tell the tale of Miles’ romance with dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). As much as Cheadle is really interested in telling a tale, for Miles Ahead is actually at times reminiscent of the impressionistic dreamily floating in and out of scenes through time approach of The Price of Desire. And that biopic of Eileen Gray was so critically savaged at JDIFF 2015 that its British release was pushed back to late May 2016… There is no stricture that a biopic about a musician involving much flashback ought to hew to the template established by James Mangold for Walk the Line. But without such formal rigour there is the danger of not much detail about anything adding up to very little, almost as if Cheadle is presenting two films: a cool jazz romance and a Gonzo blaxploitation flick.

Cheadle (complete with rasping whisper) is an engaging central presence, and under his direction Roberto Schaefer’s cinematography and Hannah Beachler’s production design impressively transform Cincinnati into rundown 1980 NYC. But the WGA credits Cheadle and Steven Baigelman (Get On Up) with the final script, based on a (presumably straighter) story from biopic specialists Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkins (Nixon, Ali, Pawn Sacrifice). So we get a hazy Finding Forrester intercut with fascinating scenes of Miles orchestrating sessions and, in some unusual historical accuracy, Miles’ proclivity for white women in a Jim Crow time landing him in trouble when a beat cop takes violent exception to his hailing a taxi for a white woman. Such gems amidst confusion make you wish Cheadle had hired Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa, who scribed his storming 2007 Petey Green biopic Talk to Me

Miles Ahead is not an entirely satisfying film, especially as you eventually feel Miles was just innovating his way down a cul-de-sac, but there’s enough shambolic charm, good performances, and great jazz to attend.

2.75/5

November 6, 2012

The Sapphires

Chris O’Dowd stars as the manager of 1960s girl-group The Sapphires in this charming Australian drama based on a true story of pioneering Aboriginal women.

Three sisters in a remote township dream of singing, but racism stymies their attempts to get discovered until drunken pianist/MC Dave (O’Dowd) stands up for them at a talent contest and quickly becomes their manager. Determined to win them the chance to entertain American troops in Vietnam he works on changing their sound and stage presence, battling all the while with Gail (Deborah Mailman), the momma bear sister with an inflated opinion of her mediocre singing talents and a sharp mouth. Her sibling rivalry with the flirtatious Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell); who is recovering from being jilted at the altar; and the younger Julie (Jessica Mauboy); the most talented singer who is driven to succeed by her need to support her son; threatens to derail the group. But that’s as nothing compared to the tension created by Dave’s insistence on adding Kay (Shari Sebbens), their ‘passing’ cousin who lives in Melbourne…

It’s hard to imagine this film working as well as it does without Chris O’Dowd’s particular shambling charm as the drunken Irish soul man with a penchant for insulting people, an abiding hatred of country music, and an ever present hip flask. Dave’s fractious relationship with Gail sees them both deliver zinging put-downs of the other, and there is a fantastic ‘emotional’ speech in which he tries to compliment her but gets sidetracked by his own barbs. The memorable quips are accompanied by a joyous soundtrack of 1960s soul music, and the low budget doesn’t stop director Wayne Blair from throwing in one very memorable show-off shot hammering home the unpredictable chaos of guerrilla warfare. But underscoring the comedy of the script by Tony Briggs and (not that) Keith Thompson is a patient reveal of a family trauma…

This should be approached as a drama, but with a lot of very funny lines. It has serious emotional heft as a major theme is vicious racism against the Aboriginal population at both a casual and official level, and it also features a startling depiction of the emotional devastation caused by Martin Luther King’s assassination that rivals a similar sequence in 2007’s terrific Don Cheadle movie Talk To Me. The Sapphires wonderfully balances presenting Vietnam as a place of racial equality, and therefore supreme opportunity for these girls, but also an extremely hazardous warzone where as Dave says ‘every American soldier here is stoned off his head’ because of fear. It’s semi-miraculous that the film successfully combines these strands with a riff on Dreamgirls as the relationships within the group buckle under the strain of constant performing and doomed romances.

The Sapphires traverses familiar territory but does so with such winning performances and good humour that it is most rewarding viewing.

4/5

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