I‘m not even a die-hard jazz fan but Don Cheadle’s MILES AHEAD took me on a musical journey that felt like it both honored the man and still made for great cinema. So many biopics get bogged down on how these stars become great, and all the trials they had to overcome. This is a Miles Davis movie, but instead of delving into all the details, Cheadle delivers a sort of dramatic heist film. MILES AHEAD is a day in the life of the jazz superstar, a day during a period he wasn’t even making music. Ewan McGregor plays a Rolling Stone journalist desperate to write the Davis comeback story, but find himself schlepping across town with Davis as he tries to get his money from Columbia Records. Columbia wants the tapes of his last session, tapes they paid for, but Davis is desperately keeping them from his label. Another jazz musician, an up-and-comer, finds himself involved in his own manager’s ploy to steal that album to earn favor with Columbia (or just exhort Miles Davis). What follows is part action sequence, part dramatic showdown, and part buddy picture.
Also there is jazz. The film is filled with great music and discussions about music, and through some well-placed and well-created flashbacks, some life experiences from Davis’ relationship with Frances Taylor, often credited as his muse. Some people have called MILES AHEAD more of a portrait than a biopic, a snapshot to a specific time in his life. However, that description doesn’t really do the film justice. The meandering nature of the film in and out of time and action is much more like a jazz piece, improvisations on a theme. We never have sure footing but we always feel like we are being led by a master. In the end, Davis has reached a new place, but the path to that place is not direct at all.
Cheadle gives a spectacular performance as Miles Davis, and the resemblance is uncanny. Anyone can see the star quality the musician carried on his shoulders the minute he picked up a trumpet, but what Cheadle really excels in are the quiet moments. Davis was great student of music, someone who thought deeply about the art he was creating and what it meant to the world. Cheadle shows us Davis’ soul, what he cared about, why went on, why he walked away, and why he came back, without ever really putting it on screen. Ewan McGregor is fun as Davis’ writer/lackey/honky sidekick, although Cheadle sort of steamrolls over him in most scenes – but that has more to do with the characters’ relationships than any fault of McGregor. Emayatzy Corinealdi is positively mesmerizing as Frances Taylor, giving an Oscar-worthy performance and letting the audience in on exactly why Taylor was Davis’s source of inspiration.
Cheadle co-wrote and directed the film as well, and his delivery of a very complicated story structure cannot be praised enough. MILES AHEAD works better than a biopic, because I did not spend the whole time learning about the man, I spent it understanding him. I walked away not wanting to read his Wikipedia entry to see what the film left out, but wanting to listen to his music, to let him guide me on a sonorous journey.