Much like its subject, Miles Ahead isn’t particularly interested in giving it’s audience the entire story of “social music” legend Miles Davis. It knows we don’t need to see the painstaking details of little Miles playing his first notes on the trumpet, or the empty bars where people throw beer bottles at a soon to be legend. In fact, this film isn’t so much a ‘rise and fall’ story as it is a ‘fall and fall deeper’ one. Writer, director, and star Don Cheadle is not just trying to make a film about Davis here, but one that lives inside his head. It’s a film that questions if creative forces of nature can truly run out of juice, or if there is further inspiration to be found in desperation.
The film opens in 1980 to the tune of a depressed, strung out Davis (Cheadle) living a hermit-like existence in his big empty house. He hasn’t released an album in five years. Without warning, Rolling Stone reporter Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) shows up at his doorstep, claiming that he’s been assigned by Davis’ record company to write a story about him. Problem is, Davis hasn’t received any cash for his first and only demo recording that he’s made during his hiatus, and as it turns out there are a few parties interested in what that new music could bring for them. Meanwhile, Davis grapples with the mistakes of his earlier career, especially those involving his ex wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi).
Cheadle makes his directorial debut here, which makes the way that he weaves this story together all the more impressive. It isn’t a film completely concerned with facts, even to the point where McGregor’s character is a complete work of fiction. However, having that character there is critical, as his fantastic chemistry with Davis fuels the film’s dive to make the icon both charismatically enigmatic, as well as deeply human. In the present day, he’s a force of nature, who seems to live on his own planet where he sees himself as completely in control. However, as the flashbacks become more and more frequent, it becomes apparent just how broken a soul he really is. Even though the film is constantly switching gears from what is essentially a buddy action comedy to a soulful biopic, some very inventive editing makes the whole affair seem like one long stream of consciousness. Perfect for a film who’s subject was known to come up with many of his riffs off the cuff.
In fact, the film is so uniquely structured and entertaining that it throws a veil over it’s somewhat contrived nature. This is most evident in the flashbacks, which despite a very impressive performance from Corinealdi, cover some very standard biopic beats. We get brief glimpses into Davis’ creative process at the height of his fame, but the film could have really benefited from more of these. When music this iconic is involved, personal relationships are essentially coats of varnish. Especially considering that the main story is so creative and fast paced, watching Davis go through these paces can be a bit of a chore, but thankfully there isn’t quite enough time spent on them to bring the film down too much.
While Miles Ahead might ultimately be a little more traditional than it thinks it is, it’s still a highly entertaining tall tale about a 20th century music giant. Cheadle gives one of the best performances of his career here, while also proving himself to be an intriguing director in the process. It will be very interesting to see if he separates himself from his work next time, and perhaps makes a film fully injected with the creative energy that the shining moments of this one has. That said, it’s a passion project where the passion doesn’t get lost in translation to vanity, which is more than can be said for several of it’s contemporaries. Even for those who aren’t fans of Davis, it’s highly worth letting Cheadle get on stage and play his little swan song.