From frame one, actor Don Cheadle’s feature film directorial debut pulses with kinetic energy and excitement that doesn’t break until the last credit rolls. Miles Ahead covers a few hectic days in the life of jazz icon Miles Davis and Cheadle does triple duty co-writing, directing, and starring. There are three major pitfalls that movies in the biopic genre often find hard to avoid: 1) trying to cover so much of its subject’s life that the movie becomes unfocused; 2) creating a glowing portrait of the subject that erases any real-life hard edges; and 3) following a standard formula of rising to fame/power from humble beginnings, a tragic fall from grace, and finally redemption. Movies detailing the life of an artist or musician find it particularly hard to avoid that last one. Walk the Line and Ray come instantly to mind. Miles Ahead deftly sidesteps all three. This is the un-biopic biopic, and it’s every bit as passionate and bold as the music of the man whose story it tells.
Set in 1979, Miles Ahead finds Davis five years into his “silent period.” The musical genius hasn’t released any new compositions in half a decade. He’s become a mercurial hermit with a destructive cocaine and booze habit. His isolated lifestyle is turned upside down when Dave Brill, a man claiming to be a journalist with Rolling Stone magazine, shows up at his door. Brill tells Davis he was sent by his employer to chronicle Davis’ imminent triumphant return to the jazz scene. The musician is working on a new album, and his label leaked that information in order to spike interest.
What follows is a highly fictionalized, impressionistic portrait of Miles Davis with a heavy dose of flashbacks giving us glimpses of who the man was and how he got that way. Cheadle worked on bringing his passion project to the screen for a decade, eventually turning to crowdfunding to shore up the last bit of capital he needed to make the film a reality. The inclusion of music journalist Brill – played by Ewan McGregor – was itself a conceit to help get the movie made. Cheadle has detailed how he was told by the studios that if there was no white male lead, there would be no movie. While that is incredibly infuriating, it’s a think piece for another day.
Cheadle took that awful reality as an opportunity to infuse his film with a fictional element that makes the movie rise above the standard biopic tropes. Brill is the catalyst for getting Davis out of his house, sparked by a chase for a reel of tape containing the artist’s new work. After the pair head to Davis’ music label so he can confront them about leaking information, Brill decides to steal the work in progress for himself, as fodder for his article. He is beaten to the tape, though, by unscrupulous music producer Harper Hamilton and his newest jazz discovery, Junior. An enraged Davis will do whatever it takes to get his property back, a mission that devolves into car chases and gunfire.
Cheadle’s performance as Miles Davis is electric. The actor doesn’t just play Davis, he is Davis. From the broken glass voice, to his wild hair, to the limp that the musician suffered due to a degenerative hip disease, Cheadle absolutely disappears in the role. The actor took trumpet lessons so he would look more believable in the scenes where Davis works his musical magic, and Cheadle is superb. He should be an unqualified lock for an Oscar best actor nomination come next January, if the academy doesn’t forget about the movie by then.
McGregor, too, is a great foil for the jazz virtuoso. His portrayal of a journalist who gets in over his head in pursuit of a dream story compliments Cheadle’s unhinged Davis well. Michael Stuhlbarg is particularly slimy as producer Hamilton, a man who isn’t above murder to get his hands on Davis’ unreleased music. Actor and rapper LaKeith Stanfield plays Junior with a wide-eyed naiveté, and he’s conflicted when forced to betray his idol at the behest of the heinous Hamilton. There is a scene where Davis and Brill confront Junior about the stolen tape at a nightclub he’s playing, but Davis is forced to acknowledge for a moment the musical chops of the younger trumpet player. A particularly powerful moment comes as Junior furiously blares from his instrument, only to pause and shout out a new key to his backup band as they feverishly try to keep up. The scene only lasts a few minutes, but it perfectly encapsulates everything that is exciting about jazz music.
Cheadle’s fascinating stylistic choices come to a head in a scene where the lines between past and present are blurred for both Davis and the audience. Davis crashes a boxing match that Hamilton is attending, and a fight breaks out between the two. As Davis flees the melee, a younger version of himself appears in the middle of the boxing ring playing his beloved trumpet. At the same time, a ghost of his past goes streaking by with the rest of the fleeing boxing match audience.
The flashbacks Cheadle cuts into the story are incorporated in an unusual and dreamlike way. The best example of this is when Davis gets into the elevator at his record label, after his confrontation with the executives. As he stands in the elevator, staring at the framed album covers that decorate it, Davis pushes on the back wall, which gives way to his touch. The camera moves into the black void behind that wall, which transitions into a memory of happier times twenty-some years ago. Not all of these transitions are as smooth or magical, but Cheadle’s effort to make the flashbacks interesting is commendable.
The story these flashbacks tell aren’t particularly groundbreaking, but Cheadle’s style goes a long, long way. We learn about Davis’ greatest love, dancer Francis Taylor. Just like with the cocaine fueled 1979 version of Davis, Cheadle shows us the darker side of his subject. We see Davis as initially loving and attentive to Taylor, but he becomes progressively more controlling and jealous, which culminates into domestic violence as his band listens uncomfortably in another room. Actress Emayatzy Corinealdi is exceptionally powerful, playing Taylor with joy and heartache and fear. It’s through these scenes we understand what brought the jazzman from his place as the most influential trumpet player in his profession to the drug-addled recluse we meet at the beginning of the film.
Cheadle brings the improvisational feel of jazz to his direction of Miles Ahead. There is a looseness, a free-flowing quality to the film that is invigorating. The opening scene is Brill finally getting Davis to sit for an interview with him, and the camera moves wildly, shifting in and out of focus as the crew sets up for the conversation. I was apprehensive at first, afraid that the entire movie would be so formalistic that it would lack any sense of cohesion. My fears were quickly put to rest. Cheadle consulted with directors he worked with in the past as an actor – most notably Steven Soderbergh and Paul Thomas Anderson – for advice on his big screen debut at the helm. In the end, the actor-turned-director created a style all his own. In that opening interview scene, Davis tells Brill not to screw around with pretentious, bland questions. “If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude.” Cheadle takes his lead character’s advice, and reinvents the biopic genre by setting the conventional form ablaze.
One of Miles Davis’ most successful and highly regarded albums is the 1960 release Sketches of Spain. Because of its unique fusion of jazz, European classical, and world music, Rolling Stone asked him to respond to suggestions that it wasn’t really jazz. He simply said, “It’s music, and I like it.” Miles Ahead is an intoxicating blend of biography, fictionalized storytelling, and avant-garde technique. It’s Sketches of Miles Davis, and I loved it.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- Don Cheadle did something fresh and new with a genre that has seen just about everything under the sun. I try to reserve my 4.5 star rating for movies I think will be discussed by film fans and scholars decades from its release. I'm not sure that will happen with Miles Ahead, but I was so transported by the movie that I had to rate it as highly as I did.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Actress Emayatzy Corinealdi plays the initial joy and eventual heartache and fear of the man she loves with particular strength and beauty. Particularly effective is the scene where Davis tries to make up for the physical abuse I mentioned in the review by lavishing her with expensive jewelry. Davis sits behind Taylor on their bed, and he tries to pull her towards him in an act of contrition. The fear on Corinealdi’s face as she struggles with how to react is exceptionally powerful.
- I mentioned at the start of the review that the excitement Cheadle creates doesn't break until the credits are over. Part of the reason I said that is the concert performance that Cheadle gives in character as Davis as the credits roll. It's set in the present, with Cheadle wearing a vest that has the phrase #socialmusic written on it. He is aided by some of jazz's living legends, like Herbie Hancock. It's a playful and fun way to end the movie.