The volatile, creatively restless, and stormy life of jazz giant Miles Davis is rendered in vibrant, kaleidoscopic, and seemingly unconventional fashion in actor Don Cheadle’s directorial debut, “Miles Ahead.” Attempting to eschew customary cradle-to-grave biopic narrative, Cheadle’s drama, which he co-wrote with Steven Baigelman, takes a collage-y approach to linear form, mixing and matching music from disparate, chronologically anachronistic periods, and hopscotches around in time mercurially. It’s a film that almost dares you to describe it as a straight-up biopic. But for all its confidence in this method, plus surface and stylistic attempts to create a story that feels like it’s filtered through a fractured glass of memory, “Miles Ahead” is actually akin to a traditional jazz played, or disguised even, in a would-be wilder key.
Built around a standard framing device of a (invented) Rolling Stone writer, Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), trying to score an interview with the reclusive Davis (triple threat) during a mid-1970s lost weekend era — which spiraled into five years of deafening silence from the legendary musician — this conceit anchors the film’s more erratic impulses from turning into free jazz. But the familiarity of the mechanism, a safe place to circle back to, doesn’t do the movie that wants to be seen as unusual many favors.
As the unscrupulous Brill tries to convince the tempestuous and cloistered music figure, who is perennially trying to dodge various sycophants, to grant him an interview, two stories unfurl: the redemptive road to Davis’ recovery from drugs and toward a musical comeback; and a more anarchic flash of images of the artist’s life, mostly centering on his ex-wfe Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). And if there’s a narrative journey to story A, it’s the contents and recovery of a reel of audio that Davis has recorded — his first in many years — that everyone is dying to get their hands on, not the least being the musician’s impatient label Columbia Records. “What the fuck you looking at?” Davis says to his trumpet at one point, its neglected state clearly speaking to him. A side story evolves here with a up-and-coming trumpeter (Keith Stanfield), tacitly understood to be Davis’ possible heir apparent, and his shady and calculating manager (Michael Stuhlbarg). Story B is essentially every flashback, which mostly track the rise and fall of his marriage.
But ultimately, “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.
The filmmaker’s greatest decision is to focus on Davis the man rather than Davis the creator of seminal pieces of art, because the music can speak for itself. And not much is going to be gleaned from its creation, other than Davis’ uncompromising vision and knack for finding the grace notes, but the movie wisely communicates that quickly and then moves on. But just as much as there are tastefully crafted leading-the-band scenes, the movie can still frustrate with the obvious. “Miles Ahead” is the type of film that introduces Ewan McGregor’s character with a subtle, but noticeable scratch under his left eye — which foreshadows much about the opportunistic and dubious personality we’ll soon get to know — but then decides to spell out exactly how he got the shiner even though a half-discerning mind can put two and two together fairly easily. It lacks faith in is viewer that way and always circles back to spell out what it hinted at earlier.
Cheadle’s fragmented narrative walks the thin line between impressionism and chaos, and the film certainly has moments of success and failure in this regard. Occasionally, the dynamic energy of the editing conveys sensory experience and flashes of brilliance: the final crescendo merges and blurs time to such terrific effect, you wish the film managed to find a way to employ this technique more often.
Whereas Todd Haynes expertly examined identity and the desire to escape it in the superior and truly unconventional Bob Dylan film, “I’m Not There,” Cheadle’s film rarely presents such keen observations. “Miles Ahead” doesn’t deliver much insight into Davis’ erratic and enigmatic impulses other than suggesting they were fueled by drugs and the haunting longing for his first wife — and doesn’t every music biopic usually offer this? And it covers the 101 beats you’d find in any magazine profile: the drug abuse, a tendency for guns and violence, loves, infidelities, paranoia, and other megalomaniac tendencies. His approach is to present situations and scenarios we’ve heard about (though his infamous domestic violence and misogynistic tendencies are severely muted in the film, presumably at the behest of the estate), but rarely reveals meaningful whys.
Still, “Miles Ahead” does have its moments, including some disarming elements of humor. Cheadle is strong as the music legend — though one may giggle a little at first at the throaty delivery and wig — and he and McGregor have a good rapport even if the latter seems like he’s sleepwalking at times. As usual, Keith Stanfield steals every scene he’s in and I’ll submit that he should age up as soon as possible in order to play Davis himself one day. And Stuhlbarg, as the conniving music manager, is deliciously oily. For all its flaws, “Miles Ahead” is rarely dull and often entertaining, but it’s certainly a movie that believes it’s more radical than it actually is.
“Miles Ahead” never really breaks out of the box, the boundaries of which Davis was always redrawing and stepping outside of himself, but it’s not for lack of trying. And so, “Miles Ahead” is well-intentioned and ambitious, but ultimately uneven, as it cannot redefine the structures its so desperately wants to break down. However, it’s still a promising directorial debut from Cheadle, which could have easily turned into a self-congratulatory vanity project. In the end, it’s clear Cheadle’s movie’s reach exceeds its grasp and capabilities, but as recent biopics go, its musicality, flair, and verve certainly count for something. [C+/B-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 New York Film Festival.