Cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michael Stuhlbarg, Keith Stanfield
Director: Don Cheadle
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Avoiding hagiography while improvising his own melodies and rhythms, writer-director-star Don Cheadle has attempted a form of filmic modal jazz. Or that's probably what he will have us to believe. Are there drugs, booze, women, triumphs, and failures? Yes. Are there spirited montages in which the great artist focuses on an infamous line or note or stroke of genius? Sure, that's here too. Is there a creaky framing device in which a bewildered white man infiltrates the world of a black man snorting four grams of coke a day while a trumpet sits collecting dust in the corner? Of course, but there's also screeching car chases, heists involving stolen recording tapes, and Michael Stuhlbarg as a villainous music producer. Admirably, Cheadle resists the typical cradle-to-the-grave biopic conventions and instead focuses mostly on Davis' 1979 phase where he was a bonafide hermit wrapped in a garish bath robe inside a ramshackle flat. Clearly fried from years of rampant drug use and boozing, Davis is a shadow of his former self and Cheadle plays him as a sweaty, panic-stricken ghost without ever giving into caricature. It's a great performance in a film that desperately needs one in order to work at all. That the movie only half gets there is a testament to the actor's unwavering commitment to unlocking Davis' demons. The other stuff involving Ewan McGregor as a hapless Rolling Stone writer, though, is decidedly less successful.
Not everything here is set during the burnout days, however. The film also occasionally flashes back to the 50s showing Davis courting his first wife Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and working with arranger Gil Evans on cutting the record "Miles Ahead." But Cheadle seems mostly interested in capturing the essence of the man rather than getting at what made him great or how he created such singular music. This is a welcome respite to the rash of sentimental kitsch we often get in the way of worshipful biopics. Instead, Miles Ahead is a rowdy, disjointed, hop-scotching mess of a film which locates the intrinsic nature of jazz as an intuitive form of self-discovery. With his raspy voice, oversized glasses, and chain-smoking charisma, Cheadle gives the lost years Davis an unpredictable intensity as well as a sad vulnerability. The idea of a man spurned by his past success and given to drunken shouting matches over the phone with record company execs is an unorthodox prism for which to process the story about a legendary figure, but then again, the film also completely makes things up whole cloth in order to dramatize such a scenario. Therefore, we get a McGuffin in the guise of some stolen tapes falling into the hands of a nefarious producer, with McGregor's woefully miscast reporter tagging along with a coked-up Miles in a series of car chases and shootouts, all set to the densely layered sounds of bebopping jazz instrumentation; or in Miles's own words, "social music."
If this sense of experimentation is meant to mirror Davis' extraordinary life's work, then Cheadle deserves credit for making his narrative as shaggy as possible, but the film would have been richer and stranger without the framing device. McGregor can be effective in certain roles, but here his bumbling journalist is a major flaw in a movie that does't need another white guy outsider in order to comment on the life of a troubled black genius. The scenes of the two partying and driving around town recklessly feel like outtakes from lame buddy movies from the 1980s, and it's clear that Cheadle and co-writer Steven Baigelman are only using the reporter character as a plot device. The film is at it's best when simply using sound and imagery in order to convey the feeling and emotions Davis' arrangements produced. A sequence set at a boxing match, for example, where a scuffle breaks out in the stands as the older Davis runs for his life while catching a brief glimpse of his younger self playing a set inside the ring, is inventive filmmaking. Another scene where Miles throws a punch at his understandably upset wife and her emotionally charged response to such violence, makes the case for why she was such an iconic figure throughout his life, including that famous cover of Someday My Prince Will Come.
Ultimately, Miles Ahead takes on the life of the 20th century jazz pioneer by adopting a line spoken by Miles himself during a drug-induced basement interview session--"If you're gonna tell a story, man, come with some attitude." Cheadle's well-meaning passion project certainly accomplishes that, but also falls prey to another quip directed at McGregor's interviewee--"Don't be all corny with this shit." It seems the contradictory nature of Davis' life; with it's odd detours and the thorny complications of being both human and having a brilliant gift, is impossible to divorce from filmmaking itself. Cheadle has made something with both an uncompromising attitude as well as a sloppy cheesiness. Maybe that's the way Miles Davis would have wanted it after all.