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Miles Ahead is sour to the taste and falls short on presenting the fullness of Davis

“If you’re gonna tell a story, come in with some attitude.” That line, uttered by Miles Davis (played by Don Cheadle) as he meets his would-be interviewer (Ewan McGregor), seems like an excuse when emblazoned across a movie poster.

Cheadle has defended his approach to writing, producing, acting in and directing Davis’s “life story” by saying the artist’s singularity demanded an inventive methodology.

Structurally, the scenes segue into each other with finesse. Cheadle forgoes concern for a linear story and presents us with a psychedelic film that plays as if we are peering into the depths of Davis’s half decade-long depression.

By choosing to focus on Davis holed up in a Manhattan brownstone during his hiatus period in the latter part of the 1970s, there is ample time for Cheadle to flex his acting chops and give us everything but the music. That would be excusable had Cheadle humanised his subject, but nailing Davis’ hiss and body language gives us an ace impersonation and nothing more.

Davis, the dark prince, the vain, egotistical, “most photographed n*gger on the planet”, is, in Cheadle’s vision, an empty and hollowed-out shell with a white buddy stuck to him like Gene Wilder to Richard Pryor.

Davis, generally, made short shrift of white people to whom he was not professionally tied. So tolerating a bullshitting character like Dave Braden (McGregor) seems disingenuous, especially as Braden is a two-bit hustler.

Moreover, a voyeuristic, self-serving look at Davis’ lost years exists in the puerile memoirs of roadie Chris Murphy, who penned Miles To Go: The Lost Years.

Cheadle has spoken about the impossibility of financing a film with a black cast, so the white sidekick is a reality of Hollywood’s politics.

But this is worse than just an inter-racial buddy flick; it’s an unintended tragicomedy with Davis as a hobbling, bumbling fool at the hands of his more agile instafriend.

Another question mark is the limited reaches for Davis’s vast discography. Could Cheadle, who had the blessing of Miles’s family in making this film, have encountered problems in getting rights to the large vault of the musician’s catalogue?

With Miles Ahead comes a fatigue, from the realisation that biopics are, largely, where black artists’ legacies go to die. It comes too soon after the twin tragedies of What Happened Miss Simone and Nina, and the portrayal of Jimi Hendrix in Jimi: All Is By My Side as helpless and naive without Linda Keith and Kathy Etchingham. For now Miles Ahead is, to reprise the band Fishbone: “Sour to the taste and sweet to the tooth/Death by saccharination.”

All this from a man who spent years learning the trumpet to make a convincing stand-in for the iconoclast that is Davis. That so much positive hype preceded the film and continued unabated after its release speaks to an industrywide insensitivity in the canonisation of black life stories, and my end of the road for the anticipation of the biopic.

So onward to the next one: Marley? Marvin? Michael? Mahalia? Whatever the case, trust that Hollywood will make it make-believe.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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