An impressive but slight portrait of one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, period, Don Cheadle’s passion project Miles Ahead presents a provocative portrait of the jazz giant, but doesn’t quite go deep enough into what made the man tick.That’s not meant to damn it with faint praise — hell, at times it’s even breathtaking; it just feels a tad incomplete. Given the mercurial life of Miles Davis, that was likely unavoidable.
Cheadle not only wrote and makes his directorial debut with the movie, he steps into the lead role and gives the kind of definitive performance that convinces viewers that he alone could play it. He wears it like a second skin, seamlessly replicating Davis’ raspy voice and violent mood swings, even going so far as to learn to play the trumpet well enough to imitate Davis’ precise finger work.
To his credit, Cheadle avoids the standard biopic formula and opts for something more subtle and more challenging. Miles Ahead skips the rising star period of the man’s career to focus on Davis circa 1979, when he was a living legend who hadn’t played in public in five years. Living like a hermit in Manhattan and struggling with a bad hip, writer’s block, a violent temper, and drug and alcohol addictions, he’s poised to either make a comeback or seal his fate as a has-been.
Enter (fictional) Rolling Stone writer Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), who insinuates himself into Davis’s life in order to write a feature on the jazz icon’s disappearance from the public eye and imminent return. Braden instead becomes his ersatz sidekick, sort-of amanuensis, and accomplice, as well as his unintended betrayer.
Interspersed throughout their madcap weekend together are flashbacks to thoughts drift back to his heyday as a musician and his tempestuous romance with his ex-wife and muse, ballerina Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). It’s during many of these scenes that Cheadle displays directorial brilliance, with one time line bleeding into the next in clever and unexpected ways via some slick filming and sound editing, mimicking Davis’ scattered thoughts.
Miles Ahead also benefits from a stunning production design by Hannah Beachler and cinematography by Roberto Schaefer (Finding Neverland, Quantum of Solace), who stunningly capture the distinctive looks of the late ’50s, early ’60s, and late ’70s. It’s worth the price of admission just to see the movie’s closing sequence, an almost ethereal performance by Davis and several contemporary jazz giants (Herbie Hancock and others playing themselves).
That said, by skirting the cliche of following an artist’s early years and the origins of the demons that drove him, Miles Ahead never really gives us a clear picture of what made the man tick, and Cheadle’s interpretation of him is sometimes opaque. Still, Davis’ life, career, and music were all complex and compelling. He reinvented himself and his sound (and thus jazz music itself) repeatedly and fearlessly, and it would take more than one biopic to convey all of that. Kudos to Mr. Cheadle for braving such a daunting challenge and delivering a nuanced work.