Greetings from Utah! This is my first time at Sundance Film Festival in Park City, and I’m so stoked to be here. I get to put another check mark on my List of Things to Do or Die Trying.
My first Sundance screening was Academy Award winner Don Cheadle’s directorial début and passion project “Miles Ahead”, an artistically unique and unconventional biopic based on jazz revolutionary Miles Davis. Before I talk about the film (it’s not a spoiler!), let me share a little about Sundance with you.
The Sundance Film Festival planted indie seeds in 1978 and grew bigger and better at spotlighting brilliant filmmakers and performance artists in film and television. I learned from an article on Time that the festival, then called the U.S. Film Festival, began in Salt Lake City as a way for the founders to attract more filmmakers to Utah. [Robert] Redford was its first board chairman, and the inaugural event focused on retrospectives of classic American films, with a few awards given to new works. It was moderately successful, with long lines for screenings and a few high-profile panelists like the beautiful and regal actress Cicely Tyson, but the organizers were left in the red which prompted them to hold another festival the year after to break even. In 1980, organizers moved the event to Park City assuming that holding the fest at a ski resort in the middle of winter would help draw more festival-goers.
The festival changed titles often and eventually became Sundance. This change came about after Redford’s Sundance Institute took over the festival in 1985. Redford named the organization after his character in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and this takeover propelled the festival into the public eye, drawing more and more art lovers each year, expanding its award categories and gaining significant industry and press attention. As studios paid more attention to the films screened at Sundance, the festival became a hub where indie projects became box-office successes.
I spent the morning exploring Park City, having breakfast with some acquaintances I knew when I lived and worked in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. I also conversed with other festival-goers over coffee before heading to Ogden for the screening at Peery’s Egyptian Theater. Before the film began, there was an organist who amusingly entertained us with score hits like the theme to “Star Wars”.
Anyway, Don Cheadle, in my opinion, is one of the greatest American actors of our time. My appreciation for jazz developed heavily during my early college years, and Davis is one of my favorite musicians. I found out about this project via his twitter feed some time in 2014, and literally did a jump for joy when I saw it on the Sundance schedule.
Early in the film, I realized it wasn’t a traditional biopic at all. Cheadle co-wrote the film with Steven Baigelman, Stephen J. Rivele, and Christopher Wilkinson, but based on Cheadle’s portrayal of Davis, I have to say that this is Cheadle’s Film. With the over-sized sunglasses, receding hairline, inconvenient limp, raspy speaking voice, and defiant personality, Cheadle embodied the genius that was Davis, even down to how he held his cigarettes and played the trumpet. He committed to the character in a brilliant way. Cheadle understood the man he was portraying and I no longer saw the actor, I saw a manifestation of one of the greatest musicians in history.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with trumpeter Miles Davis, this isn’t the best introduction to the music legend, especially if your interests go beyond a few years of his life. Starting the movie off during Davis’ musical hiatus in the late 70s, after he had already become one of “social music’s” greatest influencers with his improvised style of jazz, left a few details to be desired. I would have liked to see fragments of Davis’ transition into becoming a pioneer in jazz music portrayed, but without it, the film still gives us 100 minutes of the cool, spitfire energy that was Davis. Also, one might believe that some of the fictitious narratives of the film are true, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it opened doors to creative storytelling. If you are familiar with Davis, have read his autobiography, or took interest in his life then you will simply enjoy a high-impact film, that highlights how complicated and talented he was.
The film begins with Miles Davis being interviewed by Dave Brill (played by Ewan McGregor), a journalist for Rolling Stone Magazine. From there, we are thrown into a car chase, and a juxtaposition of abrupt, visual montages traveling between the present and lucid flashbacks of a beautifully tormented past. Plenty thanks to the film editors for this wild ride!
These flashbacks are sparked by his 1961 album cover “Some Day My Prince Will Come” which is first wife, dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), graces the cover of. We also get glimpses of their intimate embraces, studio sessions, substance abuse, domestic violence, and wild threesomes. We slightly tumble-down the painful spiral with him, and somehow it feels good.
Miles Ahead is truly an exciting experience that also made me, and the rest of the audience laugh out loud. I look forward to seeing the film again in theaters in April. Bravo, Mr. Cheadle!