Improvisation is the spice that enriches pretty much any musical genre you can name. That spontaneity is usually honed by years of practice and a deep understanding of music theory, and especially in jazz, players make it look easy. Miles Davis – who would’ve been 90 today – was a master of this blend in both music and life in general, and even in the drug-riddled state of mind he occupied in the mid-1970s, disheveled and unhinged, glimpses of that genius scored him a huge retainer from Columbia Records that allowed him to seal himself away from the world.
Miles Ahead is the story of that time, one that Don Cheadle has spent close to a decade hashing out with Davis’ estate. It’s a biopic that thrusts you into the same emotionally discombobulated and raw headspace as its subject. It’s disjointed, experimental, and kinda all over the place – just like Miles was. I still don’t know if it reminds me of a waking dream, turbulent drug trip, or experimental gangster noir, and that spontaneity keeps Miles Ahead engaging throughout.
By the time the film opens, Miles Davis (Cheadle) has shut himself away from the public for a while. His brain is soaked in cocaine, liquor, and bad memories long before he meets Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), a faux-journalist looking to score the story of a lifetime off of Davis’ supposed comeback. The duo trade autographed records for cocaine and box together in a drunken haze, but their relationship stays at arm’s length; they’re just two guys whose missions just so happen to be on the same path.
Even though some of the usual biopic trapping are here (chameleon-like lead performance, mid-40s/mid-70s period detail, character actor supporting cast), Miles Ahead isn’t a traditional all-encompassing story like Ray or What’s Love Got To Do With It? Davis’ deeply troubled relationship with Francis Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) isn’t so much intercut with the rest of the story as it is shoved right into the middle, well-timed narrative parallels that make up the emotional core of the film. A scene of Davis tripping in a flashback directly transitioning to McGregor’s face hitting the elevator floor is a sharp emotional 180, but that emotional dissonance is what keeps the mood so magnetic.
Cheadle disappearing into that raspy voice and half-afro-half-Jheri-curl confirms that he was born to put Davis on the screen. Even when you hate him (he sabotages himself at every turn and a particularly unsettling domestic dispute sucked the air out of the room), Cheadle’s directorial hand and sheer acting talent refuse to let go. McGregor plays a great confidante, even if his character feels like a tacked-on sidekick at times, while Corinealdi brings allure and heartbreak to the thankless role of loving a narcissist like Davis. Special shouts to Lakeith Stanfield as Junior, a sax player looking to score on Davis’ thunder.
Miles Ahead is an intriguing mess of a movie best summed up by one pivotal scene: a dream jam session between Cheadle’s Davis, Herbie Hancock, Robert Glasper (who scored the movie), and Esperanza Spalding played out in front of a screaming crowd. It was risky stylizing Davis’ life as both an intimate biopic and a quasi-crime thriller, but Miles Ahead shines new light on the jazz legend while proving that Cheadle should get behind the director’s chair more now that House of Lies has been cancelled. Perfectly imperfect.