Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” doesn’t reinvent the biopic the way Miles Davis reinvented jazz, but he certainly remixes it, according to the first reviews pegged to the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival. (A theatrical release through Sony Classics is planned for 2016.) Skipping past the creation of famous recordings like “Kind of Blue” and “Bitches Brew,” the movie, which Cheadle directed, stars in, and, with “Get On Up’s” Steve Baigelman, co-wrote, picks up in the late 1970s, during Davis’ five-year absence from the stage. The movie flashes back to Davis’ more productive periods, but also invents plenty for him to do in its imaginary presence, including a fictional heist in which he teams with Rolling Stone reporter Ewan McGregor to rescue his master tapes from a record-company vault. So it is that a movie about one of jazz’s most flamboyant and volatile figures trumps up a car chase to keep the audience on the hook.
Reviews laud Cheadle for his ambition more than his follow-through: For a directorial debut, “Miles Ahead” swings hard, and even if it whiffs on occasion, critics in the thick of awards season are more than happy for a chance to depart from the usual Great Man template, although some suggest they’re done with movies about troubled jerks who happen to be geniuses altogether. More than anything, Cheadle’s debut has generated excitement for his next movie behind the camera, opening a promising new chapter in one of our best actor’s careers.
Nick Schager, Variety
Don Cheadle flails about trying to channel the spirit of late jazz-trumpeting legend Miles Davis in “Miles Ahead,” a biopic that rejects typical genre conventions to the point of chasing itself down lame, tangential paths. A passion project for its star, who also directed, co-wrote and co-produced the feature, this portrait aims for insight by striving to match its own form to that of its subject’s music, whose inspired improvisational tunes repeatedly defined the course of modern jazz. Eschewing the cause-and-effect pop-psychologizing of “Ray” and “Walk the Line” for the more experimental, impressionistic approach of last year’s James Brown pic “Get On Up” (or Clint Eastwood’s “Bird”), Cheadle’s maiden directorial effort doesn’t bother with Davis’ upbringing in St. Louis, nor his early days breaking into the New York jazz scene. Rather, it opens with a quote, and then blink-and-you’ll-miss-it footage of Davis in the studio, before settling in with the artist as he gives an interview to reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), during which he immediately admonishes the journalist to ditch his “corny” Walter Cronkite shtick and “come with some attitude.”
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter
Don Cheadle deftly sidesteps the pedestrian potholes of the biographical drama in his debut as writer-director, Miles Ahead, also taking on the role of mercurial 20th century jazz innovator Miles Davis. “If you’re gonna tell a story, man, come with some attitude,” the reclusive protagonist instructs a bamboozling reporter on the trail of a comeback piece. “Don’t be all corny with this shit.” Cheadle honors that advice in a film that’s loose often to the point of messiness. But its freeform riffs on highs and lows from the musician’s life are a fine example of structure emulating the ever-evolving style of an artist defined by his unrelenting experimentation.
Graham Fuller, Screen Daily
First-time feature director Don Cheadle has made an invigoratingly bold attempt to structure his film about Miles Davis as an extended visual and narrative equivalent of modal jazz, the form the legendary trumpeter pioneered on his groundbreaking 1959 “Kind of Blue” LP. No one, of course, need recognise this strategy to appreciate the passion of Cheadle’s portrayal of the volatile Davis and that of Emayatzy Corinealdi as his muse and abused first wife, Frances.
Matt Patches, Esquire
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. 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.
Eric Kohn, Indiewire
Hiding behind a pair of shades and an unkempt afro for most of the movie, Cheadle buries himself in the character. His version of Davis is a creature of paranoia and understated frustration, whose antics find him scoring coke in a Columbia University dorm room and pointing a pistol at anyone who threatens his sense of control. While the role constantly rubs up against the dangers of caricature, that itself enhances the strange meta-narrative qualities percolating through many scenes. It’s a distraction from the substance of Davis’ music, but also invites scrutiny of the same creative process. Davis, after all, built his unique sound on the backs of earlier jazz inspirations and the improvisatory processes of dissonant elements. “Miles Ahead” follows suit with mixed results, but its ambition is formidable.
Matt Prigge, Metro
“Miles Ahead” entertains the notion that even Miles Davis — in fact, especially Miles Davis, and especially Miles Davis in 1978 — was annoyed everyone creamed over work that was long behind him, even if he hadn’t released new material in ages. Think about stuff you did even just 15 years ago. Imagine the world freaking out over things you made when you were younger and almost certainly a different person. Cheadle’s Miles Davis is a cartoon, even in the halcyon day flashbacks, but he’s more real than most artists depicted in movies. Though we barely see him play, you can sense that what ails him isn’t that he no longer likes music, or that he actually hates his old standbys. It’s that he always needs to push forward. He’s just in a creative valley. The past and his old songs are strictly for nostalgia, and maybe some self-hatred. He wants to try something new.
Jason Bailey, Flavorwire
I’ll take the floundering and occasional failing of a “Miles Ahead” over something like “Pawn Sacrifice” any day of the week and twice on Sunday. And the degree to which Cheadle and Jobs screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have led their press appearances with the it’s-NOT-a-biopic line (even using some of the same “cradle-to-grave” verbiage) indicates a keen awareness of how tired we’re all getting of the standard approach. But that also doesn’t mean that their actual lives and real stories should be ignored altogether for the sake of “historical fiction”—and, if they are, they’ll have to hold together a bit more seamlessly than they do here.
Jordan Hoffman, Guardian
I’m willing to buy the Ibsen Master Builder trope, but I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone thought adding fake car chases and gun battles was a good idea. It doesn’t quite make the movie collapse, but it comes close. When parts of a biopic are so demonstrably false (or at least not as believable as the Salieri/Mozart competition in “Amadeus”) the whole thing goes out of tune. Was there not enough of a melody to riff on in Davis’ actual life? I also question the central conceit that new music by Miles at this time would be such a hot commodity. When Davis did make his comeback, while a big deal to some, it wasn’t quite the commercial triumph shown here. I get that these are symbols, but come on.
Rodrigo Perez, The Playlist
Utimately, “Miles Ahead,” for all its aggressive smash cut transitions from the past into the present and back again, is a fairly standard story of a man in the present, struggling to face his greatness and his demons while meditating on what got him to this lonely, isolated place. Of course, much of that is just the reflective lament about his lost love and, occasionally, glints of the monstrous and selfish personality documented in countless books. Cheadle’s Davis is gruff and suffers no fools, but the real musician makes movie-Steve Jobs look like a saint. The Davis of the film has bite, but he rarely decimates in the way he was known to be capable of in real life.
John Anderson, Thompson on Hollywood
Jazz? It’s not really Cheadle’s concern, though two of Davis’ great collaborators, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, get some screen time at the end of the film, and a lot of jazz greats are alluded to throughout — Teo (Macero), Gil (Evans), Paul (Chambers) and Bill (Evans) among them. What Davis fans may object to in Cheadle’s rendition of his life isn’t so much the burlesquing of Davis crazy years but the failure to capture what made him great, or to provide any solid insight into his character — which after “Miles Ahead” remains, as always, frustratingly elusive.