Fact: Everyone loves Don Cheadle. That said, his directorial debut—“Miles Ahead”—probably did itself a disservice premiering at the New York Film Festival on Saturday. The NYFF has certainly been known to elevate movies that might otherwise have been overlooked and give them the attention they deserve. The downside? The festival’s Lincoln Center locations and reputation for highly distilled cinema deliver such a high degree of scrutiny and level of expectation that the flaws in a film are cruelly magnified.
There are things to like in “Miles Ahead,” but things to laugh at, too (there are moments, during the car-chase scenes – yes, car-chase scenes in a jazz bio-pic —that suggest Cheadle was out to make an homage to “The In-Laws”). Cheadle himself is a bit outré as Miles Davis, the trumpeter, composer, band leader, taste-maker and one of the more influential figures in American music, just FYI. The movie itself, which doesn’t pretend to be anything like a cradle-to grave biography (Davis died in 1991), straddles two time periods: 1979, the year Davis would end a five-year moratorium in performing and recording; and the late ‘50s, when he was at what many would consider the height of his artistic and commercial powers, having made such landmark albums as “Birth of the Cool,” “Kind of Blue,” “Sketches of Spain,” and the recording of the title, “Miles Ahead.”
The story is not entirely cooked up by its four screenwriters (including Cheadle): Davis’ drug-addled hermit years in his Upper West Side home were detailed in his own autobiography. Truth, however, does not always equal plausibility. In the movie’s 1979 section, a writer named Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), pretending to be on assignment from Rolling Stone, inveigles his way into Davis’ life—after being punched in the face at the trumpeter’s door—by telling Davis he can score high-quality cocaine. In what becomes an increasingly farcical, haywire narrative, our heroes try to steal back the heisted master recording of Davis’ secret comeback session from a sinister music figure played by Michael Stuhlbarg, and an up-and-coming trumpeter (Keith Stanfield) who sounds like Miles reincarnate (except, of course, that the vibrato-less master is still alive).
In the alternating late ‘50s section of the program, Davis’ chief concern is Francis Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), the dancer he would love, marry, abuse and who graced the covers of several Davis album covers (“Someday My Prince Would Come,” “ESP”). Taylor was involved in the making of the film, which may help explain its eager embrace of a schematic and romanticized plotline and adoring portrait of her—when not flash-forwarding to the Dave & Miles show, and their shootouts, and car chases, and suggestion of “48 HRS.”
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.