Cheadle is mesmerizing in his seemingly-effortless trading of cinematic duties for this thrilling tale.
If there is only one thing that you learn about jazz, it’s not the instruments that make it up, nor the time that it was most popular, or even the players that were significant in its creation. That one crucial thing is that jazz is an improvisational story being told in musical form; it has its own cast of unreliable narrators who are making up the tale as they go, each twist and turn more intriguing than the last. It is a palette for painting pictures where the hues and overall artistic movement could shift at the drop of a hat. Whether the story is based on the truth, or a marvelous work of fiction, is less important than the journey there, and the anecdotes told along the way are what add the most excitement to it all. It is, therefore, very appropriate to take an approach to creating a biopic about a jazz icon in a style that best reflects the character of the music — a feat undertaken spellbindingly by actor Don Cheadle, who both stars in and directs Miles Ahead, the 2016 tale of musical virtuoso Miles Davis.
One important thing to know about Miles Ahead, which sets it apart from basically every other big-name musical biopic from recent years, is that the story is a work of fiction. Faced with the task of telling a story about the mastermind musician, Cheadle was uninspired by the various scenarios presented to him by the Davis family. Instead, he has opted to spin a tale of his own interpretation of the period of time where Davis was outside of the public eye, in the latter half of the 1970s, and Miles Ahead is exactly that. It’s a wily story of intrigue, crime, history, violence, and the music that holds it all together — the music of a man whose own transformations were their own movements in the jazz composition of his life.
As if wishing to break from an idea that jazz is somehow seen as safe, calm or even relaxing, Miles Ahead kicks off with a bang and rides along steadily, with Cheadle driving the action as the snarling, passionate Davis. With the determined-yet-perpetually-out-of-his-depth Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), a Rolling Stone reporter determined to tell the story of his return to music, Davis finds himself jettisoning from his hermetic, drug-addled state of stasis and hurtling pell-mell into a series of exciting capers. At the center of the story are a series of master tapes from a session Davis recorded during his time of solitude, and when Brill’s ineptness causes them to be stolen, Davis’ world begins to split apart at the seams as years of triumphs, conflicts, and moments of clarity force their way into the forefront of his mind — and onto the silver screen itself.
Cheadle is enrapturing to behold on the screen. As Davis, he moves effortlessly from cold-hearted gangster to intensely emotive virtuoso, sometimes ebbing quickly between the two in the same scene. His wit and humor is as remarkably dry as it is potent, and his directness is visibly jarring to the other characters in the story, as he brandishes his words and mannerisms with the same ferocity as that of the gun he carries with him for most of the film. McGregor holds his own, but thankfully never dominates the film; as Brill, he is brilliant in his shift from a fearless, dogged reporter to a trusted, caring associate of Davis, and offers just enough glimpses of his own character to balance out the constant barrage of Davis’ cinematic mental cascade.
Taking the entire film and treating it as its own complex composition is the primary parallel that Cheadle uses to reflect Davis’ erratic mindset onscreen. The story shifts both fluidly and wildly; from Davis’ present, manic self, only a few steps between either another drug spiral or redemption in the form of a return to music; to the early days of his career, with buttoned-down suits and sans his mane of wild ringlets, when he first met Frances Taylor and built his art around the love she inspired within him; and to the years between, wrought with intermarriage struggles and warring artistic visions. While many moments are choreographed and hop from timelines at regular intervals, the more cantankerous scenes watch Davis’ timelines start to bleed together as the histories merge. Some might find it to be a bit unwieldy, with the focus shifting from the action onscreen to the sudden appearance of jazz players in the most unlikely of spots, but the constant flow of upbeat tunes keeps the energy of the scene going, even as Davis himself cycles through his different personas in a single moment.
Together with an expert cast, many relatively unknown to larger audiences, Cheadle has created a startlingly intense portrayal of what might have been in the life of Miles Davis. It is a glimpse, an interpretation, a collaborative composition being birthed into existence, exploring many avenues before disappearing into its own fanfare of intrigue. Ultimately, it’s a testament to an understanding of how Davis worked, in as proper a fashion as it can be shown in a storytelling format. If you’re looking for an engaging tale — full of passion, honed with intrigue, and regularly offering an unexpected burst of humor in the wisecracking Davis — this is one of the most pleasantly unorthodox biopics yet.
Miles Ahead is in theaters now.