Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead Captures the Spirit of Miles Davis, But Not the Music
By the time Miles Davis laid down his essential jazz album Kind of Blue, "cool" was behind him. Quite literally—after cutting 1957's Birth of the Cool, one the pillars of a post-war, bebop-alternative movement, the trumpet player continued to evolve. Cool wasn't cool enough. Davis rejected paint-by-numbers chord progressions ground to dust by his fellow ensembles. He put his ear to the ground to discover something fresh. The modal music heard in Kind of Blue shattered conventions. Critics hailed the record as a masterwork. It became the top-selling jazz record of all time. Davis could have rested. He didn't. Fresh cool was always ahead of him. And he chased it.
In his prismatic, percussive biopic Miles Ahead, which just premiered at the New York Film Festival, actor-director Don Cheadle picks up with Davis at his lowest point, a late-'70s stretch of musician's block provoked by depression and fluffed with cocaine. Through flashbacks and haunting memories, we see the full pendulum swing—from success stories, down to derailment, and all that jazz in between. Cheadle evokes Davis' recordings with mercurial style and his own rambunctious performance as the late legend. The past ebbs and flows out of the present. Deeper cuts (think Agharta) rub against the classics in an anachronistic splatter painting. The main thrust of the film, the hunt for stolen studio tapes, imagines Davis and amalgamated Rolling Stone writer Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) in a swinging version of T.J. Hooker. Cheadle pulls out all the stops to capture Davis' essence. He never quite gets there. Miles Ahead is the rare biopic in need of Hollywood's "cradle to grave" blueprints. By scrapping Davis' origin story—picking up his first trumpet, finding his sound, abandoning the culture around him—the film simply insists upon importance. The music never speaks for itself.
Cheadle frames Miles Ahead with a faux-documentary talking head, introducing us to Davis' shaggy incarnation. The actor sits back on a throne, clutching a gaudy, jeweled trumpet. McGregor quivers in his presence. This man is a god. A few cymbal hits later, the movie zips us back in time, Davis rotting in an Upper West Side pad, owning his "Howard Hughes of jazz" moniker. It's as compelling as the "harder they fall" idiom can get. The fictionalized drama overwhelms the true story. McGregor and Cheadle wind up in a mini-road movie as they prevent Columbia Records from exploiting Davis' raw recordings. Both embrace the swinging, drug-fueled era, giving the movie a buddy-comedy edge that balances out the inherent trauma of Davis' situation. It's an enjoyable, vapid ride.
With the Davis estate's participation, Cheadle delves into the darkest moments of his subject's life. The substance abuse, the infidelity, the abuse toward his wife, dancer Frances Taylor, are all there. For most of the movie, Davis comes off as aggressively unlikable. Rarely does music vindicate him. In a scene set at the recording of Porgy and Bess, we finally find an amicable Davis work out rhythm and attack strategy (though one of his greatest collaborators, Gil Evans, is a glorified extra in the scene). While performing, Cheadle is proficient, even soulful, as he taps away on the horn. The sequences are sporadic and infrequent. The director layers most of Miles Ahead's tracks over action or melodrama. A singular moment of musical expression blasts through.
There are moments when Cheadle's psychedelic vision really pops. Late in the film, Davis and Brill confront Michael Stuhlbarg's slimy Columbia executive at a boxing match. There's fighting in the stands. There's fighting in the ring. And depending on the angle Cheadle swings to, there's Davis' younger self, looking slick and seizing the spotlight for a wailing solo. A scene in which Davis is attacked by racially-charged police outside the Birdland nightclub, ripped out of the history books, is pure, heated drama, despite feeling trite in context. Miles Ahead doesn't know what aspect of Davis' life is fit for a movie. It just know he glows. Cheadle's commitment to expressing his unbridled creativity and violent flaws makes his attempt worth it.
For all its desire to visualize jazz, and defy the plodding nature of linear biography, Miles Ahead arrives stiff. It's part of a cool era in which passionate artists make the movies they want to make—Cheadle's long-gestating passion project earned some of its budget from crowdsourcing, just to steer clear of studio demands—but Davis didn't settle for what was. He chased cool. Cheadle presents a Davis burdened by his own ambition. Miles Ahead suffers in similar fashion, but clips on a coda that speaks volumes. Don't worry—no spoilers. But Cheadle's greatest insight is knowing when a musician dies, he doesn't. Miles, who died in 1991, is alive and kicking it, inspiring everything we hear today. Miles Ahead is a worthy love letter to the longevity.