In­ven­tive, free­wheel­ing slice of jazz leg­end’s life

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - South Broward - - MOVIES - By Michael Phillips

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.

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