“If you want to tell a story, come with some attitude”, growls Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis early on in “Miles Ahead, and it may as well have been Cheadle expressing his mission statement for the entire film. A passion project of Cheadle’s for years, his directorial debut doesn’t just eschew the traditional biopic format; it’s as creatively vivid, turbulent, and timeless as the legendary jazz musician himself. Through sheer swagger and the force of Cheadle’s lead performance, the film is able to overcome a few missed notes.
Little about the film follows any kind of traditional path, but the setup certainly does. Set in the 1970s during a five-year stretch when Davis had retreated from the spotlight and left an overwhelming musical void, the story finds him holed up in his home, mostly stoned out of his mind, refusing requests to be interviewed or to talk to the studio heads. Ewan McGregor plays Dave Brill, a fictional Rolling Stone reporter who desperately wants an interview, and will go to any unscrupulous means to get it.
Springboarding from this basic premise are a number of cascading subplots, tumbling in and out of the chronologically mercurial narrative. In the present, Davis contends with anxious studio execs that are dying for the master trumpeter’s latest album, his first in years. When Davis refuses, barging into the studio and waving a gun around, others take it into their hands to steal it for themselves. One who sees the profitability in possessing the recordings is a corrupt manager (Michael Stuhlbarg), who hopes to use them as a means of forcing Davis to work with his protégé (Keith Stanfield), seen by many as jazz’s next big thing. The other storyline involves Davis’ failed marriage to Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi), and how it impacted his music and could be part of a road to redemption.
There have been countless books published, articles written, and films made about Davis’ powder keg of a personality. He could be incredibly selfish and downright awful to the people around him, and the drugs only amplified the nastiest aspects of his personality. The point is made, or at least proposed, that it’s selfish for a man of his talent to deprive the world of the joy his music brings, just so he can sit around and wallow in drug-induced misery. Cheadle’s version of Davis doesn’t shy away from any of that, but he’s never quite as terrible as the history books let on, and that may have been a calculated move on the actor’s part. This is, after all, the story of Davis coping with his own greatness by retreating into a world of complete isolation. While we don’t need to necessarily like every questionable action Davis makes on his road to recovery, and trust that he makes a ton of terrible choices, we at least need to feel something over his inner turmoil. In one particular heartbreaking moment, Davis picks up his beloved trumpet for the first time in years (“The fuck you lookin’ at”, he says to it at one point), and can’t even blow a single note worth listening to. It’s a far cry from the supremely confident man whose sound set the jazz world on fire.
Barreling through time, mixing and matching music in wildly disparate eras, “Miles Ahead” never sits idle for very long. It’s constantly moving at a blistering tempo, a pace only accelerated as a comical heist plot develops. Through all of the wildly anachronistic transitions, one thing that’s never lost is Davis’ impact on the world of music. Take a film like the recent “I Saw the Light” which was so consumed by Hank Williams’ personal demons that it forgot to depict his creative genius. That’s never the case here, even though it shares many of the same beats, such as the failed marriage and rampant drug use. The music, which thankfully Cheadle was able to acquire and use to perfection, is always seen as the ultimate prize. Davis created a tapestry of intoxicating sound that people loved, then it all went away, and now he’s on one messed up journey to revive it.
Cheadle, who directs, stars, and co-wrote the screenplay, probably could have gotten away with playing Davis straight-up rather than trying to imitate his gravelly voice. It takes some getting used to, but most importantly is he nails Davis’ no-nonsense attitude and enigmatic spirit. He’s actually better in the present day scenes after Davis has hit rock bottom than during the flashbacks, which all have a formulaic feel that doesn’t click with the film’s rebellious approach. More often than not, “Miles Ahead” shatters the genre’s confines, and while it doesn’t completely reinvent the wheel, Cheadle’s ambition is something Miles Davis himself would have championed.