MILES AHEAD, biopic, rated R, Violet Crown, 3 chiles
Miles Davis fixes a narrow stare on the journalist who has wangled his way into his townhouse saying he’s there to interview him for Rolling Stone. “If you’re going to tell a story,” Miles snarls, “come with some attitude, man!”
This advice would seem to have burst straight from the heart of the man who produced, co-wrote, and directed this walk on the wild side of the jazz legend, and also plays the title role. That man is Don Cheadle, who has been angling and preparing to make this movie for the better part of a decade. Miles Ahead has attitude up the wazoo. You weren’t expecting a biopic on the “Birth of the Cool” icon to feature shootouts and car chases? Well, nobody ever said Miles was going to be predictable.
Cheadle’s movie comes laced with plenty of great Miles Davis music, but he has chosen to steer clear of an overview of the trumpet legend’s life arc with stops at his musical milestones. Instead, Cheadle has set the story at the end of the lost years in the back side of the ’70s, when Davis became a recluse and stopped performing and recording altogether. During that stretch, he skulked in his townhouse, hoovering cocaine up his nose, smoking endless packs of cigarettes, nursing an injured hip, and glaring with a baleful eye at his idle trumpet.
Miles Ahead bears a striking structural similarity to Born to be Blue, the Chet Baker biopic that is hitting theaters concurrently. Both films pick up their man at a low in his career; both toggle back and forth between that present and an earlier period when the music was pouring from the trumpet like water from a mountain spring, the girls were lining up, and life was rich with promise. Both stories feature a great love who sacrifices her career for her man and finds it a bad bargain.
Davis’ woman is the dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), whose face adorns the cover of his 1961 album Someday My Prince Will Come. Corinealdi gives an elegant, emotionally grounded performance that counterpoints Cheadle’s volatile Davis, and her album cover provides a door to take him back in time, just as a biopic-within-a-biopic device does in the Baker movie. But Baker doesn’t get any car chases.
Cheadle’s approach to the Davis story is to let his imagination rip, creating something along the lines of a movie he figures Miles would have enjoyed being in. Cheadle told Rolling Stone he decided “to make a movie about this dude as a gangster — ’cause that’s how I feel about Miles Davis.”
Cheadle couldn’t get financing for t he movie without a white co-star. Enter Ewan McGregor, and a plot device about a journalist named Dave Brill trying to get an interview with the “Howard Hughes of Jazz.” In a movie that revels in its own exuberant originality, this plays like lead ankle weights. It’s a character that never quite fits. McGregor, fine actor that he is, can’t overcome the saddle of being a racist financing device, a burden that strikes the sensibilities all the more sourly in this year of #OscarsSoWhite.
Cheadle, making his debut behind the camera, is as solid there as he is in front of it. A musician in his own right (he plays the saxophone, and studied trumpet with Wynton Marsalis to prepare for this role), he makes the music-making credible, and doesn’t cheat on the Davis sound; that’s Miles’ music coming out on the soundtrack. And while the actor may not be a dead ringer physically for the jazzman (Davis himself disliked the term jazz, preferring “social music”), he has you believing you’re watching Miles before many frames have passed through the projector. His elder Davis sweats and snarls, and occasionally lets a flash of wit light the screen. His younger incarnation shows the cool and the command of the clean-cut kid, with those moments that reveal the man’s insecurity. “This is the guy who you think is the coolest dude in the world,” Cheadle has said, “and he talks about not knowing if it was cooler to tap his whole foot, or to tap his foot inside of his shoe.”
Now, back to the car chase. Cheadle and co-writer Steven Baigelman have come up with a great MacGuffin, a tape recording of a secret Davis studio session for a possible comeback album that unscrupulous Columbia Records producer Harper Hamilton (a hilariously sleazy Michael Stuhlberg) would kill (literally) to get his hands on. That tape gets stolen, and stolen back, and that’s when the rubber hits the road and the bullets fly, and the dramatis personae wind up in a confrontation at a boxing match, with 1980 Miles accosting Hamilton while his 1940s self blows the trumpet in the ring.
If you’re wondering, that never happened. But somehow it feels right.
Breeches brew: Don Cheadle