What’s a labor of love? Take a look at what Don Cheadle does in Miles Ahead. Not only does he act the hell out of the role of the late jazz trumpeter Miles Davis — the raspy voice, the death stare, the hair, the attitude, the cocaine-fueled paranoia. Cheadle is also the director (his first time at bat), co-writer and co-producer of the movie. That means he gets the lion’s share of the credit — and also the blame. As an actor, Cheadle is flawless, letting us feel we’re really hanging with a musical genius possessed of a volatile temper and a talent to match. Like Born To Be Blue, Miles Ahead is allergic to all things biopic, especially the cheap psychology and the effort to tie up a complex life with a neat bow.
Cheadle, who wrote the script with Steven Baigelman, plops us right down into the middle of Davis’ life, during the late 1970’s when he took five years of self-imposed retirement and lived like a hermit. Instead of a road map, the film gives us conjecture: What if Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), a fictional freelancer from Rolling Stone, barged in on Davis and demanded an interview? And what if, in the process of the interrogation, Davis turned Brill into a sidekick? You know, a dude who can sneak Davis into a college dorm to score drugs, protect him during a shootout on the streets of Manhattan (he limps from a degenerative hip condition), and help Davis steal back master tapes from Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), a honcho at Columbia Records. As Davis tells Brill, “If you’re gonna tell a story, man, come with some attitude.”
Miles Ahead has attitude for days. There are flashbacks to Davis being beaten bloody by cops and to Davis’s turbulent romance with his first wife, Frances Taylor (the terrific Emayatzy Corinealdi), whose photo adorns the album cover of the Davis LP, Someday My Prince Will Come. Editors John Axelrad and Kayla Emter put all this stuff together in a crazy jigsaw pattern to emulate the way Davis used improvisatory fragments in his music. But they’re not up to the master. It’s doubtful anyone could be.
The film picks up steam whenever Cheadle shows us Davis doing what he does best, making “social music” (he hates the word jazz). A scene of Davis working with musicians on songs from his 1960 album Sketches of Spain crackles with excitement you don’t feel when the film descends into soap opera and 1970’s era action mayhem. You can feel Cheadle’s desire to do Davis proud by not doing anything boilerplate. It’s a near miss, but you can’t help applauding the passion behind it.