“If you’re going to tell a story, come with an attitude,” declares Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) in the opening minutes of “Miles Ahead,” during an interview leading up to a comeback performance. The musician proceeds to do just that, giving Cheadle — who also handles co-writing and directing duties — full license to craft a subjective riff on Davis’ troubled relationship to his own mythology. Erratic, unpredictable and constantly intriguing, “Miles Ahead” plays more like one of Davis’ compositions than a traditional biopic, stumbling around with flashes of insight and a brilliant central performance.
Co-written by Steve Baigelman, who worked on the script for last year’s James Brown biopic “Get on Up,” Cheadle’s trades the standard biographical details of that earlier film for an intermittently enjoyable and wacky farce examining the conditions under which Davis returned to music late in his career.
Set in the late seventies, during the five-year window where Davis stopped performing, “Miles Ahead” borrows in part from the unlikely mold of a heist movie: After insistent music reporter Dave Braden (a jacked-up Ewan McGregor) surfaces at the drug-addled Davis’ home looking for an exclusive, Davis drags him along on a trepidatious odyssey to rescue some of his private recordings from the Columbia Records office. In the process, he’s nearly seduced by a scheming producer (Michael Stuhlbarg), who’s wielding a new protege named Junior (Keith Stanfield in his first significant role since “Short Term 12”) readymade for teaming up with Davis.
Cheadle intermittently cuts away from these unseemly events with a handful of flashbacks to Davis’ earlier career, most notably his courtship and ultimately doomed marriage to dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Though Davis married twice more, “Miles Ahead” positions Taylor as the muse whose impact weighed heavily on the musician even though he ruined their romance with a series of infidelities. Her face peering off the cover of Davis’ “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Taylor takes on a symbolic value throughout “Miles Ahead” as the idyllic fusion of life and art that Davis never managed to fully grasp. Nevertheless, the sequences involving his time with Taylor lead to some of the more conventional moments (and, unfortunately, the only real presence of a female character), which otherwise sticks to a series of unexpected circumstances.
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.
Fortunately, no matter the exuberant twists, “Miles Ahead” never shortchanges the music. Littered with passing references to various albums — sick of the public’s obsession over “Kind of Blue,” this Davis seems to prefer the classical-world music blend of “Sketches of Spain” — “Miles Ahead” relies heavily on Davis’ compositions. To that end, Cheadle’s choppy storytelling never overshadows the talent that inspired it.
Still, the movie tosses around a lot of possible access points to Davis’ legacy, some more successful than others. As the fictional protege Junior, Stanfield represents Davis’ own memories of his youthful determination (“Junior” was one of his nicknames), though the metaphorical connotations of the character never quite cohere. Awkward exchanges with super-fans who approach a dyspeptic Davis with praise register as one-note. The crime element of the plot never really pays off.
Through it all, however, Cheadle maintains a convincing screen presence that holds the multiple strands together. The actor makes an uneasy transition to the director’s chair, but his performative abilities enhance the movie’s intentions. Cheadle clearly takes his cues from an opening Davis quote that “when you’re creating your own shit, even the sky ain’t the limit.” Like Davis, the movie keeps reaching for new ideas, occasionally hitting on some great ones. Chief among them, a dizzying bit in which Davis attends a prize fight that ultimately turns into a musical performance epitomizes Cheadle’s inventive technique.
With so many fragmentary ingredients, “Miles Ahead” falls short of settling on a satisfactory ending. The concluding performance, which finds Davis returning to the stage for the final act of his career, begs for a transition into archival materials. Instead, Cheadle keeps it up through the credits, portraying Davis on the trumpet while wearing a jacket emblazoned with the hashtag “#socialmusic,” a reference to the musician’s own term for his art.
That contemporary reference point, like many of the random details swirling about “Miles Ahead,” distracts from the legacy of a musician whose work remains timeless. At the same time, it underscores a passionate argument for the extent to which Davis’ rich mash-up of sounds has grown more culturally relevant than ever.
“Miles Davis” closes the New York Film Festival this weekend. Sony Pictures Classics will release it theatrically next year.