Another week, another musician bio-pic. That’s how it goes. These movies never stop. Thankfully, Don Cheadle’s ‘Miles Ahead’ doesn’t fit the routine.
The brilliant actor has spent years trying to make a film about jazz icon Miles Davis, toiling away through several scripts, learning the trumpet, and eventually co-writing and directing a movie himself just to get it right. The passion and persistence clearly paid off. Cheadle has made a fascinatingly bizarre, heavily fictionalized riff of a movie that captures the magic of its subject by ignoring all the tiredly respectful clichés of the bio-pic genre. It’s not a film dedicated to accuracy, but a strange and unpredictable journey rather than yet another two-hour Wikipedia entry. Cheadle’s done something interesting here that other filmmakers who dare to go down the artist bio-pic path could learn from. The fact that he also delivers one hell of a central performance and proves to be a talented director in his own right is almost a bonus. It ain’t perfect, but thankfully the years Cheadle put into this project weren’t in vain.
The entirely fictionalized main narrative takes place in 1979. At that point, Miles Davis (Cheadle, naturally) hadn’t performed in years. He’s was in his Howard Hughes period, tucked away in an apartment avoiding the world and living off a fat retainer provided by his record company. Ewan McGregor co-stars as Rolling Stone reporter Dave Brill, who shows up unannounced to write a piece on Davis’ comeback, which the musician refutes, then takes the guy on a strange odyssey.
There’s a MacGuffin in the form of a secret recording that the record company (embodied by Michael Stuhlbarg’s delightfully sleazy executive) wants and Brill hopes to steal. There are trips to a drug dealer, unexpected parties, mobsters, car chases and guns. Throughout it all, the soundtrack never stops playing Davis’ music as a constant driving force. Frequently, Cheadle (as filmmaker) departs his fictionalized reality to flow through Davis’ memory. Walls shift and scenes stop as Davis drifts out of the main story and into his fractured vision of the past. There are musical performances in these narrative riffs, but mostly they involve the troubled relationship between Davis and his ex-wife/muse Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Coniealdi, who’s excellent) and how that experience inspired some of the best music of his career. That’s potentially the cheesiest and most obvious bio-pic material, but in Cheadle’s hands it’s merely a sneaky departure in an otherwise strange and wonderfully entertaining movie that never delivers the expected.
Cheadle has certainly come up with a novel approach to avoid the usual bio-pic trappings: Skip the facts and just make stuff up. It sounds sacrilegious, but it works. ‘Miles Ahead’ is certainly far more entertaining and unpredictable than the usual entries in this troubled genre, and in an odd way it captures a more honest sense of Miles Davis than the usual rags-to-riches nonsense ever could. After all, this was a man who dedicated his life and art to zigging where others might zag. Cheadle’s movie follows suit, setting up expectations and knocking them down, settling into a narrative before drifting off someplace else, and gleefully leaning on lies to find a deeper truth in the presentation of the character.
It also doesn’t hurt that the story is rather hilarious and filled with delightful surprises. It’s not every day that you get to see some sort of twisted, drugged up, and mildly hallucinogenic buddy picture starring Don Cheadle and Ewan McGregor in hapless goofball mode. That’s well worth the price of admission, and the fact that the filmmaker manages to sneak in some soul and pain and plenty of music around the edges is just icing on the cake.
Cheadle might not lean on accuracy in his storytelling, but he captures Davis in his performance rather beautifully. His rasping voice is pitch perfect, coming across more as more of a genuine character choice than some easy impression. He plays a man who has been through hell and came back on his own terms. His tough exterior and slow ramble of a walk carry all the long and tragic history of Miles Davis that Cheadle doesn’t bother to dramatize as a storyteller. He doesn’t need to. It’s all there in the performance. You get the genius and the suffering. The details are but a trip to Google away if you need them.
Cheadle is also wise enough as a filmmaker to surround himself with talented actors to keep the film alive. McGregor is better than he’s been in years because he’s allowed to be a character actor. His leading man looks may have landed him plenty of starring roles, but he never seemed comfortable as a blank-faced hero. He’s better as a loser or an oddball like he plays here. Stuhlbarg glowers mysteriously behind a pair of shades in a nice reminder of how intimidating he can be, even if he’s rarely cast that way. And Coniealdi is wonderful in a role that so easily could have been a throwaway “magic woman who saves the troubled genius” cliché, were it not for the fact that she uses every moment of her limited screen time to create a full human rather than a plot device.
All that being said, ‘Miles Ahead’ is certainly a film that will frustrate some viewers. There are no lessons here and none of the major life events that Miles Davis aficionados might hope to see checked off in a bio-pic make it to the screen. The movie is more about capturing a tone and rhythm that Cheadle feels defines Davis. To say he succeeded entirely as a filmmaker would be inaccurate. At times the movie is oddly both a little too silly and a little too experimental for its own good. However, whenever Cheadle’s wandering cameras slither into Davis’ memories and out again, or when the invented narrative hits its tragicomic peaks, the film bursts to life with energy and unpredictability. It’s wild and fun, filled with beautiful music and complex emotions. It would be nice to say it’s a Miles Davis movie that Miles Davis would approve of, but who knows if that would be the case? It is certainly the Miles Davis movie that Don Cheadle approves of, though. Given the dedication it took to deliver such a strange movie and deeply felt performance, that’ll do.