With Miles Ahead, Cheadle has constructed a knotty, and improbably fun, film about professional damage control.
In his directorial debut, Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle plays a bruised genius named Miles Davis. Perhaps you’re familiar with the trumpeter, composer and bandleader who once recorded such jazz masterpieces as Birth of the Cool, Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew. If not, no need to worry. Miles Ahead requires from the viewer zero prerequisites apart from simple name recognition and the vaguest knowledge of Davis’s groundbreaking achievements. In an act of mercy, the film, in turn, offers no cradle-to-grave milestones to enlighten the newcomer. We don’t witness Davis first hold a trumpet, play an early gig, sign to a record label, achieve artistic greatness—you know, the stuff of such musical biopics as Ray or Walk the Line.
Cheadle rightly assumes the audience will take these major life and career events for granted. For him, the particular truths of chronology are secondary to the universal truths of fiction. Rather than dramatize the full scope of Davis’ remarkable accomplishments, Cheadle and his co-screenwriter Steven Baigelman treat history like an improvised jazz solo to capture the essence of a great artist mired in creative stagnation. Those seeking complete verisimilitude or a comprehensive biography should, maybe, look elsewhere. I’d start with the public library.
Miles Ahead centers on a short stretch of Davis’ life in the late 1970s. When we first meet him he’s strung out, shut in, “the Howard Hughes of jazz.” A Rolling Stone reporter, played with an excess of charm and gleaming teeth by Ewan McGregor, soon comes knocking on his Upper West Side door. McGregor’s Dave Brill, a composite character designed to kick the story into gear (and, as a white co-star, increase the film’s marketability overseas), is eager to write a comeback story. He ingratiates himself to Davis by scoring some high-quality cocaine, and he then slips into the dual role of his valet and partner in crime.
After a disastrous meeting with some Columbia Records executives (including the always excellent Michael Stuhlbarg, the picture’s dastardly villain), Miles Ahead pivots away from reality and into the film Cheadle really wants to make: a rollicking caper. The suits, you see, are after a reel of unheard session recordings, which their cash cow is unwilling to hand over. This contractual impasse results not in dull courtroom proceedings, but gunfights and car chases.
Interspersed throughout these action set pieces are flashbacks to Davis’ budding romantic relationship with his muse and eventual wife Frances Taylor (a radiant Emayatzy Corinealdi). Cheadle integrates the two storylines, at times inelegantly, through a prism of magical realism that recalls the works of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. In one scene, Davis pushes against an elevator wall, which swings open into an early studio rehearsal. In another, the past and present collide at once during a boxing match. And like a snake feasting on its tail, the film ends exactly where it begins.
Miles Ahead may be about a jazz legend at the twilight of his career. But it tackles a thornier topic, the debilitating inverse of creative flourishing—a crisis of confidence. The tape the record company stooges covet is not a meaningless plot construction, which is made clear once we hear its contents. Though Davis continues to collect checks on past glory, his legacy remains a heavy burden to carry. The creative well has run dry, a secret he needs to protect above all else.
With Miles Ahead, Cheadle has constructed a knotty, and improbably fun, film about professional damage control. And his performance as Davis, here a musician and an action hero, ranks among his finest. One of Cheadle’s first lines illustrates why Miles Ahead is the rare film (loosely) based on a real life that rises above the tedium of the standard biopic. To his lonely trumpet Davis asks, with a whispery rasp, “What the fuck you looking at?” I’ll answer for that poor, inanimate horn: a singular and entertaining spectacle. Much like Miles Davis himself.