With musical biopics, so often the most crucial element – the music – becomes a solo act, accompanied by little-to-nothing in the way of strong visual corollaries to that music. You get the outline of a tormented genius’ life, and a misguided, reverential sense of respect, but no cinema; no life in that life.
Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” is a disarming exception to the usual. It’s squirrelly and exuberant, and it moves. Even with what you might call a necessary evil at its center (more on that later), the film responds in storytelling terms to its subject’s jagged edges and dislocated state of mind. Cheadle, who stars in a role he was born to play, clearly is mad for Miles Davis, the artist, but he’s not a sap (at least not entirely) about Miles Davis, the everything else.
Earlier in his career, Cheadle wrote plays and acted in plenty of other plays, and he knows the value of theatricality. That’s how “Miles Ahead” feels: like a fluid, well-staged, freely inventive response to a man’s life and music. Cheadle makes his feature directorial debut with this script, which he co-wrote with Steven Baigelman, a collaborator on the fine, undervalued 2014 James Brown biopic “Get on Up.” The movie takes 1979 as jumping-off point. Davis is in a creative funk. He’s a New York recluse with a bad hip and one too many drugs, medicinal and recreational, in his system.
Into this funk comes a hungry music journalist, eager to tell Davis’ story, or chronicle his downward spiral from close range. The self-described Rolling Stone contributor, a fictional person, is played by Ewan McGregor, opposite Cheadle’s wary, terrifically detailed portrait of the trumpet player in crisis. As these two spend time together, they score cocaine, meet with record company executives (the meeting concludes with Davis firing a pistol to a make a point about artistic ownership) and scramble to recover a stolen demo tape of Davis’ most recent music.
A lot of this is made up, even more than usual for a musical biopic. I don’t have a problem with that, but you might. The movie dives in and out of the past, by way of some elegant, arresting transitions; in one such scene, Polaroid photos taken of Davis and a sometime girlfriend in bed blur into a montage of Davis’ wedding photographs from years earlier, depicting Cheadle and, as the wife we come to know in “Miles Ahead,” Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances Taylor, the Broadway and London stage star.
The temperamental jazz legend strong-armed Frances into quitting her career. Though director and co-writer Cheadle makes the typical biopic move of downplaying the worst of his spousal abuse, and the thuggish side of a violently modal personality, the film’s time-skips are handled with notable skill, both by Cheadle and the editors, John Axelrad and Kayla M. Emter.
So here’s the necessary evil part.
In interviews Cheadle has acknowledged that casting McGregor, whose name means a lot internationally in terms of a reasonable level of box office insurance, ended up getting “Miles Ahead” out of an endless, decadelong development loop. And by establishing the dynamic between Davis and the fictional journalist, the screenwriters were doing their best to A) tell the story their way, and B) open the door for bankable white-male casting. The results are mixed; McGregor’s OK, but the role feels more functional than inspired.
The reason I like “Miles Ahead,” despite its problems, has everything to do with Cheadle both behind and in front of the camera. He treats this chapter of Davis’ life like a page or two torn out of the late-blaxploitation era, with car chases and drug deals. Those pages are shuffled, intriguingly, with pages from a very different part of Davis’ life, the “Kind of Blue” part.
Cheadle the actor never once tries to make us “feel” for Davis’ predicament, or explain every aspect of his bad behavior, any more than it tries to explain his musicianship. The star of “Miles Ahead” is too busy, too invested, in imagining the dramatic and blackly comic possibilities in what the 1979 Davis might’ve been like, behind closed doors, waiting for something to bring back the muse.