Inventive, freewheeling slice of jazz legend’s life
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. 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 journalist eager to tell Davis’ story, or chronicle his downward spiral. 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. 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,” MPAA rating: R (for strong language throughout, drug use, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence) Running time: 1:40 Opens: Friday 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 cowriter Cheadle makes the typical biopic move of downplaying the worst of spousal abuse and thuggish side of a violently modal personality, the film’s timeskips 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 boxoffice 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 lateblaxploitation 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. Michael Phillips is a Tribune Newspapers critic.
Don Cheadle stars as musical genius Miles Davis in “Miles Ahead,” a film he also co-wrote and directed.