Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s new movie about the life of Miles Davis, is the most fascinating music biopic I’ve ever seen because it is not actually a music biopic. It’s a gangster/heist buddy dramedy which just happens to feature a famous jazz musician. Then at the end it more or less tells you everything you just saw was not so much based in fact, but instead on feel. This is not a cradle-to-crave story of a great, but flawed man; it’s a freeform exploration of what it apparently feels like to listen to that flawed man’s music. The way Cheadle, making his directorial debut in addition to starring as the music icon, gradually weaves in multiple time periods before fusing them together in a riveting climax is as masterfully constructed as any of Davis’ famous compositions.
And that’s where my praise for this movie steps over the line. I can’t rightfully compare Cheadle’s impressive prowess as a filmmaker to the musical talents of Miles Davis because before seeing Miles Ahead I’d never knowingly listened to any of Davis’ work. For me, jazz has only ever been the soundtrack to bookshop/coffee shop visits or Woody Allen/film noir movies. I’ve patiently listened to impassioned pleas from oddly insistent jazz enthusiasts (like in this famous Jerry Maguire scene) before replying, “I’m sorry. It’s just not for me”:
Surprisingly, that makes me the perfect audience for Miles Ahead. I’m completely unburdened by pre-conceived notions or expectations for which major Miles Davis life moments and noted recordings must be acknowledged. I’m not scanning the faces of the background players and trying to figure out which semi-famous musician they’re supposed to be nor am I stressing out over historical inaccuracies. Instead, I’m asking Don Cheadle to tell me what he thinks I need to know about Miles Davis.
It all starts off in a rather traditional place: a bookending interview.
As a supremely cool Davis nonchalantly sinks into a chair with an ever-present cigarette in his hand, an off-screen interviewer attempts to extract some deep insight out of the clearly mercurial musician, effectively setting the stage for us in the process. It’s 1980. After a five-year hiatus, Davis has returned to music. However, the world wants to know what the heck he’s been up to since 1975, and why exactly he’s returning now. Davis’ answers, delivered in the raspy voice of a long-time smoker, are brief and caustic, usually punctuated with a well-placed “motherfucker.” As the interviewer slips into a overly conventional voice, he’s quickly interrupted by Davis, who demands that he cut the “corny, Walter Cronkite schtick” and instead “come with some attitude.”
It’s Miles Ahead‘s purpose-statement moment. This isn’t going to be Ray or Walk the Line. Dewey Cox isn’t going to easily mock this movie. Davis’ life might turn out to feature several of the all-to-familiar “tortured musical genius” cliches, but Miles Ahead will come at all of it with a serious attitude. Along the way, Cheadle will trot out just about every directing trick he’s picked up over the years from working with people like Shane Black (Iron Man 3), Steven Soderbergh (the Oceans trilogy) and especially (!) Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), but he’ll do so in a way which always services the story while also delighting those with a taste for the avant-garde (e.g., during one intense sequence Davis actually runs into the camera lens and pushes it out of his way).
Constructed to resemble a freeform jazz song, Miles Ahead is mostly concerned with a MacGuffin-driven story attempting to fill in the blank of what exactly happened to Davis during his self-imposed hiatus away from music. However, there is plenty of freeform riffing in the multiple flashbacks to the earlier parts of Davis’ career, specifically his relationship with dancer/future wife Frances Taylor (an astonishingly magnetic Emayatzy Corinealdi), his muse who eventually became the cover model for one of his iconic albums.
Let’s start with the primary plot. At some point in the mid-to-late 1970s, Davis is locked away in his house, living like jazz music’s version of Howard Hughes, impatiently awaiting his next royalty check from Columbia Records. However, their patience has run out. They want new music from him, and he has the master tapes from a studio recording session he conducted over a year prior. Until he hands over those tapes, they won’t pay him anymore.
A Rolling Stone journalist (Ewan McGregor) has caught wind of this and wants to write the great Miles Davis comeback story. Instead, he is dragged into Davis’ downward spiral of addiction, self-hatred and musical impotence, rubbing against seedy music producers/promoters and a young trumpet prodigy who might just re-ignite something in Davis. It all turns into a fight over the master tapes, escalating to car chases and gun fights, with Cheadle and McGregor making for a well-conceived buddy pairing, bickering the whole time and differing on how far they’re willing to take things.
Of course, this section of the story is largely fictitious, with McGregor accurately arguing in an interview, “It’s less a Miles biopic than an attempt to cast Miles in a caper flick that he might like to have been part of.” Cheadle admitted McGregor’s character was created specifically for the film as a concession to financiers who refused to invest money in this production unless it had a white male co-lead. There were journalists who attempted to interview Davis during his exile, but none of them got as far as McGregor’s character and they certainly didn’t share in a Shane Black-esque romp through the big city underworld.
Not that I knew any of that while watching the movie. As far as I knew, this all really happened. Davis quit making music in 1975 because he felt like he didn’t have anything more to say, and when he returned his stated reason was that he was simply ready to come back. Cheadle needed to make that struggle cinematic:
“What we were trying to do, for better or worse, to the effect that it worked or didn’t work, was externalize what in our minds was an internal journey […] What’s going on in those five years? In the books, it’s this much. [Holds fingers an inch apart] So we thought, that’s the movie. How Miles got his groove back.”
As for the Frances Taylor years, that is where many of the more expected music biopic moments happen, but it also serves to introduce an air of mystery. We see a completely healthy Miles and Frances making love and music together in his house in happier times, but the Miles we know from the 70s walks with an unexplained limp and his house is a complete mess. What exactly happened to Frances? Did she die tragically? Is that why Miles lost his passion? Did they simply break up? Did he start abusing drugs before or after losing her? How does his limp play into everything?
Cheadle’s direction leans into all of those questions, first introducing Frances as a mysterious fever dream the 1970s Miles witnesses walking up the stairs to their old bedroom before disappearing, leaving it purposefully unclear if this is simply a painful memory or a ghostly visage. Even when we reach the point of Miles and Frances’ wedding night in the flashbacks, the memories collide in Davis’ drug-addled mind, the room circling around him as the alluring vision of his new wife in her wedding dress is harshly interrupted by brief flashes of future fights we will later see in full.
All of the answers are eventually revealed in the fantastic final act. Past and present collide thanks to Cheadle and his editors John Axelrad and Kayla Emter’s seamless cross-cutting between eras. It ultimately delves into the pitiable desperation of a once-great musical giant.
Even if you do ultimately end up pitying Davis, though, you might not actually like him. Cheadle has created a version of Davis who constantly lashes out at the world and is unapologetic in his selfishness. However, there is also a frankness to him which gradually endears in a “since he says whatever he wants some of his little asides are pretty funny” kind of way. Moreover, Cheadle’s past as a trumpet player and clear talent with the instrument lends a necessary credibility to the various musical performances throughout the movie. McGregor is more than capable of serving as Mr. Exposition, and his character comes to things with his own set of selfish motivations. Emayatzy Corinealdi’s Frances Taylor is somewhat underwritten, but never unsympathetic.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I have no idea how well this movie plays for those who really know their Miles Davis, and I’m not sure that it actually convinces me of his musical genius, which everyone in the film takes as a complete given. However, as the story of how Miles got his groove back it absolutely fascinates and announces Cheadle as a director of extreme ambition. After this, Cheadle could probably teach a master class in how to make sure your flashback transitions are visually engaging instead of staid and familiar. Moreover, his choice to approach the material as the visual realization of freeform jazz ends up working beautifully even though it’s probably far more structured than an actual piece of freeform jazz.
71% – “Miles Ahead is worth watching for Don Cheadle’s strong work on both sides of the camera, even if this unconventional biopic doesn’t quite capture its subject’s timeless appeal.