All The Way l reviewed by Miles David Moore Scene4 Magazine | July 2016 |

Miles David Moore

The spring was crowded with new film biographies of famous musicians, including Marc Abrahams’ I Saw the Light starring Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams and Robert Budreau’s Born to be Blue with Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker.  The film among them that received the most distribution and publicity was Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s film about an episode in the life of Miles Davis, with himself in the starring role.

Miles Ahead, with a screenplay co-written by Cheadle and Steven Baigelman, was Cheadle’s dream project—one that took him a decade to bring to the screen.  I went to the film with high expectations: Cheadle is one of my favorite actors, and I wanted to see the revelations he could bring to Davis’ life story as director and screenwriter.  Cheadle certainly nails the role of Davis, capturing his trademark gravel voice and his badass demeanor.  In the film’s better scenes, Cheadle goes further, showing the price Davis paid, in loneliness and despair, for constantly having to be the coolest guy in the room.


However, the story of Miles Ahead left me dumbfounded.  Essentially, it is a day in Davis’ life in what was perhaps his lowest period, in the late 1970s.  Davis was living as a recluse in his trash-filled Manhattan brownstone, awash in cocaine and booze, not performing and not recording.  He did, however, have a session tape hidden away, and the center of the story is the efforts of unscrupulous record producers—especially one played by Michael Stuhlbarg, whose character lacks only a pencil-thin mustache to twirl—to get their hands on the tape.

Unfortunately for the film’s credibility, the story is a total invention.  The villains are fictional, and so is Dave Brill (Ewan MacGregor), the writer purportedly working for Rolling Stone who shows up unannounced at Davis’ door to interview him.  Davis greets him with a punch in the mouth, but soon Brill is Davis’ new best friend, helping him first to shake down producers at Columbia Records for unpaid royalties and later in a car chase, complete with gunplay, to get his stolen tape back.

If you’re saying “WTF?” right now, believe me so was I.  I respect Cheadle’s intentions to subvert the stale conventions of film biopics to tell deeper truths about Davis’ character and career.  But intentions and achievements are different things.

It’s scarcely a new thing to invent fictional stories about real people.  Combining historical figures with fictional characters is at least as old as Shakespeare. There are many such works of serious intent, and many more of trivial intent.  To give just one example of the latter, everyone my age grew up with Fess Parker playing first Davy Crockett and then Daniel Boone, doing things the real-life men would never have done, and meeting people they never could have met.  No one took these for serious biographies; they were boys’ adventure stories, and as a boy I loved them.

It’s also not new for directors and screenwriters to try and break free from the stultifying templates of film biographies, especially those of artistic geniuses.  One notable example of this is 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould, Francois Girard’s 1993 film starring Colm Feore as Gould, another notoriously eccentric and elusive character. The title says it all: Girard and co-screenwriter Don McKellar create 32 vignettes designed to illuminate Gould’s life and character.  The fragmented yet coherent set of films, resembling in structure the Bach keyboard works so strongly associated with Gould’s career, makes much more sense in telling Gould’s story than a linear screenplay would have done.

Gould’s performances of Bach on the 32 Short Films soundtrack do a lot to make the film work, and Cheadle’s judicious choice of Davis’ music has a similar effect on Miles Ahead.  Cheadle affects a free-form, improvisational directorial style, using still photos and short bits of animation overlaid with Davis’ music to switch between scenes.  The biggest switches are those between the fictional story and the flashback scenes between Davis and Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), Davis’ ex-wife.  Taylor, a successful dancer, gave up her career to marry Davis, and saw him through some harrowing times, including the incident—depicted in the film—in which cops beat up and arrested Davis just for the hell of it. Yet despite Taylor’s obvious devotion, Davis drove her away through his maniacal jealousy and violent temper.  Miles Ahead presents Taylor as the love of Davis’ life, and much of the dislocation he feels is caused by his grief at losing her.


The problem with Miles Ahead is that the scenes between Davis and Taylor feel real and serious in a way that the other scenes just don’t.  Are we really to suspend our disbelief so much as to accept that Miles Davis rode shotgun around the streets of New York, shooting his enemies to death with a guy he barely knew behind the wheel?  Are we to think this tells us important things about his life and art that we didn’t know before?

It doesn’t help that these scenes play like an assembly-line,
B-grade thriller.  It also doesn’t help that the characters Cheadle and Baigelman created are dull.  Toward the end, the audience would be more than happy to line up behind Davis to give Dave Brill a punch in the mouth.

A much more successful example of film biography aired May 21 on HBO.  All the Way, Jay Roach’s film with a screenplay by Robert Schenkkan based on Schenkkan’s play, is both an exciting story about a crucial moment in American history and an incisive portrait of one of America’s most controversial presidents.

Bryan Cranston, repeating his Broadway role as Lyndon Baines Johnson, is extraordinary.  Cranston looks much more like LBJ than you ever thought he could (kudos to the makeup department), but beyond that he captures everything we know about the historical figure, in ways that leave us awestruck. 


Cranston comes at us full-force, presenting Johnson’s idealism, charm and political savvy, but also the hot-tempered cruelty and bullying he inflicted on everyone close to him, including Lady Bird (Melissa Leo). Cranston’s Johnson is a great leader, but also despicably petty and two-faced.  In one scene he tells a loyal staffer he’s the son he never had; five minutes later, after that same staffer is caught in a homosexual scandal, Johnson throws him to the wolves.  (Among other things, All the Way reminds us that gay rights are a very recent, and still fragile, phenomenon.)

All the Way tells the story of the Johnson administration from John F. Kennedy’s assassination through passage of the Civil Rights Act and the 1964 election.  In some ways it functions as a companion piece to Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which covers events just after the election, including (of course) the march on Selma and passage of the Voting Rights Act. Just as Selma is the story of Martin Luther King and his allies, with Johnson as a major supporting player, so All the Way is the story of LBJ and his
staff, with MLK as a major supporting player.  Both films make the historical events they portray a matter of edge-of-your-seat excitement, and I hope HBO plays them as a double feature someday.  

Anthony Mackie, playing King in All the Way, is less commanding than David Oyelowo in Selma, but the same can be said about Tom Wilkinson playing Johnson in Selma compared with Cranston.  In any case, the acting in both films is praiseworthy.  In All the Way, the runner-up honors to Cranston probably belong to Frank Langella as Louisiana Senator Richard B. Russell, avuncular and gracious yet tied to a hateful, racist system, whose once-close relationship with Johnson grows ever more distant as the Civil Rights Act progresses.


All the Way isn’t perfect.  For example, Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford) had more backbone against Johnson’s bullying than the movie portrays.  But the film is dead-on in portraying the costs of the war for civil rights.  Just after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Humphrey congratulates Johnson. Johnson turns to him with a world-weary expression and says, “We just lost the South—for my lifetime, and probably for yours.”  Decades have passed, and the South is still lost. 

All the Way shows, almost offhandedly, the tragic consequences of Johnson’s obsessiveness.  In one scene, Johnson tells Robert McNamara (Bo Foxworth) to order more air strikes against the Viet Cong.  “Now we can get back to the important issues,” Johnson says as McNamara leaves. Immediately after that line, you could hear a crash; that was the hearts of the audience, falling simultaneously through the floor.

Post Your Comments
About This Article Here

Share This Page

View other readers’ comments in Letters to the Editor

Scene4 Magazine — Miles David Moore

Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications Inc., the author of three books of poetry and the Film Critic for Scene4. Read his Blog
For more of his commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

©2016 Miles David Moore
©2016 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Recent Film Reviews

The Revenant
The Big Short
The Martian
The Imitation Game

For a complete index of all
reviews by
Miles David Moore
Click Here



July 2016

Cover | This Issue | inView | inFocus | inSight | Perspectives | Comments | Blogs | Contact Us | Recent Issues | Special Issues | Masthead | Contacts&Links | Submissions | Advertising | Subscribe | Books | Your Support | Privacy | Terms | Archives

Search This Issue


Search The Archives



Share in Facebook


Scene4 (ISSN 1932-3603), published monthly by Scene4 Magazine - International Magazine of Arts and Media. Copyright © 2000-2016 AVIAR-DKA LTD - AVIAR MEDIA LLC. All rights reserved. Now in our 17th year of publication with Worldwide Readership in 141 Countries and comprehensive archives of over 9000 web pages (36,000 print pages).

Scientific American -
Penguin Books-USA
Character Flaws by Les Marcott at
Thai Airways at Scene4 Magazine