So what: Miles Ahead and I Saw The Light movie reviews
Movies about famous people are a Hollywood staple, and stories about the disheveled lives of tragic pop musicians are an especially popular subgenre. Although I haven’t caught up with either the Amy Winehouse or the Nina Simone documentaries from last year, I recently saw two new biopics about American music legends that are currently making the theatrical rounds.
The first of these, I Saw The Light, traces the meteoric rise of country music superstar Hank Williams, following the last six years of his life as he dominated the charts with thirty hit songs (and seven number ones) in the 1940s and 50s. These include classics like Lovesick Blues, Jamabalaya, Hey, Good Lookin’, and many more. I’m a fan of Williams’ stripped down country tunes and I also like Tom Hiddleston, who stars as Williams, so I was cautiously optimistic about this one. Although enlivened by Hiddleston’s charisma the film alas is a pedestrian retelling of Williams story that veers away from the sharp edges of its subject matter.
Williams led an interesting life as one of early country music’s most influential singers and composers but the film focuses entirely too much on the boring relationship between Williams and his talentless estranged wife Audrey, as well as other relationships with various women throughout his life. Although the movie doesn’t ignore Hank’s drinking and philandering ways, it only briefly references his pill-popping and his morphine addiction. Weirdly enough, the film elides what might have been one of its most dramatic event, Williams’ sudden death from a drug/alcohol/heart problem cocktail at age 29. Instead we get a solemn epilogue that explains his passing and its effect on his fans.
Tom Hiddleston demonstrates why Loki is the best part of the Avengers franchise, showing off his magnetism and his lean and lovely good looks. He also sings all of the songs himself (although Hank Williams isn’t that tough to imitate) and looks dapper and hot in various vintage suits. But at age thirty-five Hiddleston seems a bit too old to be playing Williams in his mid to late 20s, with his receding hairline and crow’s feet telling the tale.
The movie also fails in its attempt to make Williams into a spiritual ancestor of 27-club rock stars Morrison, Hendrix, and Cobain, mostly because the film averts its eyes whenever the picture might get too seedy. We don’t see Williams at his worst and the film’s glossy star treatment avoids showing anything too messy. Cherry Jones as Williams’ mom brings a salty dimension to her character and there are hints that her contentious relationship with Audrey could spark into something more lively, but even their mild catfights are sadly muffled. Entirely too genteel when it should be down and dirty, the movie lacks the edge that would elevate it beyond an episode of VH1’s Behind The Music. In addition, the film never gives a sense of Williams as a musician or a musical talent besides his ability to make hit records. It’s more about his celebrity than his artistry and as such doesn’t offer a lot of insights into why Williams merits a movie of his own in the first place.
Miles Ahead, which looks at the life of legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, is an entirely different story. Don Cheadle directs and stars in this one and, unlike I Saw The Light, the film revels in Davis’ eccentricities and dirty laundry, as well as giving a sense of his enormous musical gifts. Alternating between a fictional account of Davis’ lean years in the 1980s, when he was suffering from artist’s block and hadn’t released an album in more than five years, and the 1950s when he made his most celebrated music and was also married to his first wife, dancer Francis Tyler, the film doesn’t shy away from Davis’ cocaine habit, his cheating on Francis, his love of guns, or his questionable taste in clothes in the 1980s. Cheadle presents Davis as a complex human being with many warts as well as a celebrity and a musical innovator. Like Hiddleston, Cheadle also plays many of the songs in the film, apparently having spent years learning the trumpet in preparation for this role.
Cheadle adds some imaginative cinematic touches to the movie that give a sense of the addled and sideways-thinking interior of Davis’ head. In defiance of conventional moviemaking logic he includes several clever fantasy-based scene transitions and during one sequence he abandons realism completely, cutting rapidly between 1980s Davis getting into fight at boxing match and 1950s Davis playing his horn in a session in a nightclub. The scene ends up with 1950s Davis and his combo jamming in the middle of the boxing ring while 1980s Davis flees the scene. Despite mostly having control over the more fantastic elements of the storytelling, Cheadle’s cinematic invention at times threatens to go a bit too far. An extended plot element involving the heist of the master recording of one of Davis’ studio sessions featuring Ewan McGregor as the obligatory white guy, aka a completely fictional character invented to appease Hollywood investors, at times veers very close to becoming a Guy Ritchie movie complete with car chases, shootouts, and shady gangsters. Here the movie plays fast and loose with some of the facts for the sake of ginning up the narrative to make it more commercial.
The film’s treatment of another aspect of Davis’ life also reflects Hollywood’s tendency to avoid representing difficult topics for fear of losing audience and profits. The movie soft-peddles Davis’ abusive relationship with his first wife Francis, making him out to be an overly controlling partner instead of an out-and-out batterer. While it’s creepy that Davis forces Francis to abandon her career as a dancer, the film implies that the two of them loved each other despite Davis’ abusiveness. However, Cheadle doesn’t shy away from another less-than-rosy episode Davis’ life, recounting Davis’ 1959 run-in with the NYPD during which he was beaten and jailed for walking a white woman to a cab. In these days of heightened awareness of police brutality against the African American community this sequence takes on an added relevance, documenting the historical precedents for contemporary discrimination and racism.
Though not without flaws, Miles Ahead is a much more risky and creative biopic than I Saw The Light. Add in Cheadle’s spot-on depiction of Davis in all his quirky genius, either as the suave and sexy 1950s Miles or the frazzle-haired and coked-out 1980s Miles and the film is pretty consistently engaging throughout its running time.