In a promotional interview for his new film about jazz icon Miles Davis, actor Don Cheadle told Rolling Stone he’d been playing the saxophone and studying jazz since the fifth grade. So when he was inspired to write, direct and star in a film about a musician as complex as the late Davis, he wasn’t about to do the standard cradle-to-coffin, Isn’t-He-Great, pop-psychoanalyzing biopic.
Purists will probably go apoplectic, however, when confronted with Cheadle’s Miles Ahead, named for the musician’s first collaborative album with arranger Gil Evans in 1957. Set in the late 1970s during the five-year period Davis stopped performing or releasing new music, Miles Ahead is mostly a heist film in which the central conflict is built on an imaginary event that has Davis and a duplicitous sidekick dodging bullets and fleeing vehicles. Davis is hellbent on rescuing some of his private recordings, stolen by his longtime label, Columbia Records. Much of the movie is a madcap chase to recover the tapes. The label isn’t kidding around. One of its bad guys justifies shooting at Davis from a speeding car: “He’s more profitable dead than alive.”
Ridiculous? To be sure. Engaging? You bet. Miles Ahead sidesteps key notes in the development of what made Miles Davis a legend, but there are several documentaries to consider if you’re in need of a primer (a good one is The Miles Davis Story on disc). But Miles Ahead is a fun, wacky and occasionally moving thrill ride. Cheadle is working off a high wire here, directing the often frenetic movie like one of Davis’ late period free form recordings.
As Davis, Cheadle’s terrific in capturing the physical traits of the musician. He’s got Davis’ raspy voice down pat (the result of yelling too soon after an operation to remove vocal nodes), the look and the cocksure swagger, too. But rather than a one-note caricature, Cheadle also digs deeper into the soul and gives us a conflicted character we can empathize with even as we shake our heads at how abusive he could be.
As one of Davis’ targets, Emayatzy Corinealdi is fine as Davis’ first wife, Frances Taylor, a dancer who gave up her promising career at his insistence and served as his muse and cover model for his 1961 album, Some Day My Prince Will Come. (Taylor and other members of Davis’ family served as consultants, giving Miles Ahead’s less fanciful flashback scenes a level of authenticity.)
Early in the film, a steely, coke-addled Davis makes mincemeat out of an interviewer. “If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude,” he commands of the unseen journalist, whom we soon meet as an insistent music writer from Rolling Stone played by a twitchy, corduroy-wearing, limp-haired Ewan McGregor. He’s good, too.
Davis is not necessarily likeable, but Cheadle, working with screenwriter Steve Baigelman (the James Brown biopic Get on Up) manages to do what Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger haven’t been able to achieve on HBO’s over-the-top ’70s music drama Vinyl: depict a complicated, paranoid, self-destructive and frustrated lead as a human being with dimension instead of an absurd and tiresome stereotype.
Cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Michael Stuhlbarg.
Director: Don Cheadle.
Screenwriters: Steven Baigelman, Don Cheadle.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 100 minutes. Vulgar language, drug use, sexual situations, violence, nudity. In Miami-Dade: O Cinema Miami Beach, Aventura, Sunset Place, South Beach, Hialeah; in Broward: Gateway, Oakwood, Paradise Park.