Like a great artist improvising jazz music, Don Cheadle has taken the biography to new heights. Rather than offering a standard paint-by-the-numbers hagiography of jazz great Miles Davis, Cheadle delivers an impressionistic portrait. He chooses to begin the musician’s story during the most unproductive period of his career, the mid-1970s. He didn’t record a thing. Instead Miles is holed up in his Manhattan home spending all of his time on drugs, booze and women. Cheadle not only makes his directorial debut but he also co-wrote the screenplay and stars as Miles. It is one of the most magnetic performances of Cheadle’s eclectic career. For adventurous cinephiles, ‘Miles Ahead’ captures the gritty and volatile essence of the troubled jazz legend.
Long-haired Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) wants to know why he has turned into a hermit. He knocks on Miles’ door with a tape recorder in hand to get at the real story. Before he can shut him out, Dave shoehorns his way into his lair. Miles then tells him, “If you’re going to tell a story, come with some attitude.” This is where the story uses a studio session tape as a MacGuffin. They visit Columbia Records where Miles demands another advanced payment check. An unscrupulous manager Harper Hamilton (handlebar moustache Michael Stuhlbarg) gets his grimy hands on the tape that turns into a buddy cop chase sequence through the streets of New York. Before we can take a breath, Cheadle effectively uses flashbacks to reveal Miles during his youthful bebop years.
This is where Cheadle meets the love of his life, the beautiful dancer Frances Taylor (impressively played by Emayatzy Corinealdi). It’s a passionate relationship that shows signs of abuse from Miles’ constant womanizing and dependence on drugs. He insists that she abandon her career as a dancer to devote herself completely to him. This is a bitter pill for her to swallow but she acquiesces to his demand. It will be one of her biggest regrets. We never see the present day Frances. She is like a muse to Miles. She is the one that got away from him. Corinealdi holds her own against Cheadle’s performance. She brings an intelligence and strength to her character that could have easily been a throwaway jilted lover role.
This is not a conventional biopic that fits neatly into chronological order. The past and present collide into each other. Cheadle uses an artsy style of filmmaking that uses memory to reveal the glory and disappointment in Miles’ life. To get at the heart of the musician, Cheadle learned how to play the trumpet to prepare for the role. His efforts paid off as the trumpet becomes another character in the film. Biographical facts are inserted as flashbacks to illuminate Miles’ creative genius and his chaotic personal life. One telling and fact-based scene deals with Miles at the famous Birdland nightclub in New York City circa 1959. As he was escorting an attractive blonde woman to a taxi, a cop told him to “move on.” He explained to him that he worked at the club and refused to move. Miles was beaten, arrested and taken to jail.
Covering such a larger-than-life legend like Miles is a daunting task but Cheadle’s free form style gets at the iconic musician’s essence. He is never condescending to his main subject. He fearlessly shows the character’s flaws. His life was full of triumph as well as heartbreaking missteps. In order to understand the jazz legend, Cheadle never holds back the darkness of Miles. It offers a freer and adventurous movie that a biopic would never be able to fulfill. Don’t miss Cheadle’s electrifying performance in the provocative portrait ‘Miles Ahead.’ Check out the official trailer https://youtu.be/wqq63ZJ5q3w