“Miles Ahead” is a biopic unlike any other, an impressionistic, cinematic and often fantastic take on the life of jazz legend Miles Davis. And that is precisely what Don Cheadle was aiming for.
Cheadle, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay, stars as Davis, and Cheadle dominates a film that takes great liberties with the truth in portraying Davis as the eccentric, temperamental genius he truly was.
Time is hazy and fluid in “Miles Ahead.” The story swings and drifts from present to past: from Davis in the late 1970s, when he was a drug-addled, chain-smoking recluse who had abandoned music; to the 1950s, when he was madly in love with his first wife, Frances Taylor, played by the radiant Emayatzy Corinealdi, and creating some of his best music with composer Gil Evans, including the album from which the film gets its name.
But instead of a formal film biography that renders a sugar-coated portrait of its hallowed subject, Cheadle imposes a narrative of his own and a fictional one at that.
The story is framed by an encounter Davis has with a journalist, Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) who stops by Davis’ hermitage, claiming to be on assignment from Rolling Stone to write a story about the reclusive musician.
Braden is initially a pest and a thorn in Davis’ side, but he insinuates himself into Davis’ life, becoming his driver, sidekick and the guy who helps Davis score high-grade cocaine.
Braden also gets involved in the fictional caper that erupts out of nowhere. He takes Davis to Columbia Records where Davis wants to pick up the $20,000 he insists the label owes him. The label, though, is interested in some new recordings from Davis, who hadn’t released an album in more than five years. Davis meets seamy record producer Hamilton Howard (Michael Stuhlbarg), who wants Davis to help him launch a young, troubled trumpet virtuoso (in whom Davis sees his younger self).
Recordings are stolen and then retrieved, and that’s where the movie veers, at high speed, into an action movie filled with car chases and gunplay. Suddenly “Miles Ahead” becomes a buddy flick, like “Lethal Weapon” or “48 Hours.”
Cheadle, a Kansas City native, plays Davis brilliantly and convincingly, no matter what period of his life the plot has slipped into: the latter-day Miles, with a quaffed mane of hair, gaudy clothes and sunglasses with large-framed lenses who has no patience for fools; the satiny and seductive 1950s Miles, who favors slick suits and who is devoted to his music and his marriage; and the insecure Miles, a philanderer who controls his wife, emotionally and physically.
His performance alone is worth the time and price of admission. So is the accompanying music. Stick around for the closing number, which features Cheadle, as Davis, performing with an ensemble that includes Robert Glasper, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Gary Clark Jr., Esperanza Spalding and Antonio Sanchez.
But anyone hoping for something more straightforward and historical should look elsewhere. At the beginning of the film, Cheadle, as Davis (in the 1980s) says, “When you’re creating your own s***, man, even the sky ain’t the limit” — words Cheadle took to heart in making “Miles Ahead.”
Rated R. Time: 1:40.