Miles Davis is one of the best jazz musicians of all time. Davis was one of those musicians that really conveyed great talented passion and emotion, and his life should’ve made it to the big screen years ago. Nevertheless, Miles Ahead arrives in 2016 with Don Cheadle playing the great musician and also making his directorial debut.
The film opens in the later years of Miles’ life. He has already reached fame and fortune, but his drug addiction has turned him into a Howard Hughes recluse, and he has temporarily turned his back on music. The story opens with Miles alone in his home when he’s aggressively approached by Rolling Stone magazine writer Dave Brill (Ewan McGreggor), who’s interested in writing about Miles’ new project. The opportunistic Brill gets swept into a fantastical series of events that include following Miles as he confronts his record label, procures cocaine and is chased through the streets in a hail of gunfire by unscrupulous folk looking to advance their worldly standing through the theft of Miles’ still-in-progress demo tape.Similar to the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy in 2015, Miles Ahead focuses on two distinct periods in the musician’s life, with the latter period representing a more troubled time. The early scenes shows us bits of Davis’ story mostly in the late 1950s and 1960s, when he was courting and married to Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and making some of his best music (including the 1957 album which lends its name to this film). In the ‘present day’ scenes, it’s 1980 and Davis is preparing to emerge from his self-imposed musical exile. This period is depicted through a fictional story in which Brill manages to spend two days with Davis.
The flashback scenes show us Davis’ process for making music and chronicle his relationship with Frances (whom the interviewer calls Davis’ “muse”), but the real meat on this film’s bones is during that couple of days in 1980. We get to know a Miles Davis who swears at everyone, would just as likely punch a reporter than talk to him, was very much into the drug scene, and would put a bullet in someone’s television – and threaten the same to anyone who crossed him. It’s the focus that Cheadle wanted – Davis’ “gangster” side, which clearly influenced (and was influenced by) his music.
But the 1980 portion of the film isn’t just about public displays of bad behaviour. The story underlying all of that is Davis’ struggle with whether he should make a comeback – and his obsession with protecting a two-year-old session tape that he had stashed in his house and which attracts the attention of at least three different interested parties who want to get a hold of that tape nearly as much as Davis wants to hold onto it himself. One of those parties is Columbia Records. Another is Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), an agent who is promoting a talented young trumpet player (Keith Stanfield), along with his own selfish interests, by any and all means he deems necessary.Miles Ahead is a creative and highly satisfying biopic. Fictionalizing an entire episode in Davis’ life, but setting that period against a background of real issues turns out to be a handy and effective technique for getting to know Davis as a person, warts and all. Dual timelines and flashbacks are not new, but the way Cheadle arranges them and how he manages transitions between them is boldly innovative. Directing his first feature, Cheadle also gives it a stronger narrative thread than in most modern biopics.
Even more impressive is Cheadle’s performance. He first impressed me in 1997’s Boogie Nights, then in films such as the Ocean‘s movies, Crash, Hotel Rwanda, and his more recent superhero movies. His work in Hotel Rwanda impressed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences enough that they nominated him for a Best Actor Oscar (in addition to Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations)…but he’s really outdone himself this time. While pulling triple duty on this film, he loses himself in the role, enabling us to find Miles Davis.
Ultimately, aspects of this might upset die-hard Davis fans, but the final product is as slick, cool and stylish as Miles himself. Miles Ahead bares a huge resemblance to Love & Mercy, so if you liked that, you’ll lap this up.