It’s the notes Don Cheadle doesn’t worry about playing that makes ‘Miles Ahead’ feel so fresh.
It’s already been said by plenty that Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead is more the equivalent of a 100-minute jazz concert than an illuminating biographical picture, and that’s true. These days, though, we’re seeing a general shift – finally – away from the all-encompassing, assumingly true life stories of those public figures who get movies made about them. Miles Ahead premiered the same week as Steve Jobs, a comparably impressionistic film about the style and essence of a man which mixes fact with fiction in order to find some sort of spiritual truth. Love & Mercy, from earlier in the year, saw John Cusack and Paul Dano each playing Brian Wilson in different stages of his life, tracing more his demons and his dreams than his singular effect on the music world.
Miles Ahead lives in this vein. Perhaps there’s an advantage Cheadle has in this being his first time directing: the tailoring of style and pace to subject that makes the best and most interesting biopics work feels entirely cohesive here, presumably because there’s no habits Cheadle has to break or hold back. The plot centers on Davis, played with both nuance and relish by Cheadle, as he holes up in his apartment in 1975, snorting cocaine, listening to music, watching boxing and imagining his ex-wife is still there with him. His laissez-faire lifestyle is interrupted by Ewan McGregor, in the role of a so-called reporter from Rolling Stone, who all but breaks into the house to try and get the scoop on Miles’ rumored comeback session.
The ensuing shenanigans – which is somehow the most apt word to describe the adventure, despite the presence of drawn guns, car chases and heroin junkies – take place over two nights and are mostly fictitious happenings, meant to channel the spirit of Miles rather than the historical proceedings of his life. There is a real sort of pulsating chemistry that Cheadle and McGregor find between the two of them; watching and listening to them interact is continually pleasurable and interesting.
Amidst the 1975 storyline we also get increasingly lengthy throwbacks to the heyday of Davis’s career, when the love of his life, Francis Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), was still present in it. The transitions between these two arcs and the natural ebb and flow between them is consistently reinvigorating, due more than anything to how cool they manage to be: Davis will fall backwards into a chair, and suddenly with a single note from the trumpet and a subtle pop of cigarette smoke we’re back in the 60’s, seeing shorter hair and nicer suits.
That’s the dominating vibe of the film, as a whole. Its coolness is the channel through which Davis’s soul seems to seep through the screen; even during moments of emotional intensity and physical abuse there is a rhythm that the movie never seems to leave. It’s this consistent collectedness in the chaos that lets the film wash over you like the best sort of jazz. No matter how many instruments get added, you never lose notice of the cello, holding everyone together.
The downside of this distinct but erratic approach would seem to be the lack of insight into Davis as a man, the apparent failure of the movie to dive into the psychological complexities that motivated a sometimes condemnable lifestyle which Cheadle makes no effort to sugar-coat or glamourize. What’s really happening in the head of our subject isn’t ever explored; rather, the movie seems to make a strong argument against the assumed revelation that is supposed to accompany traditional biopics and true stories. The purpose of a film about Miles Davis, and of the music of Miles David, is made to be the moment to moment ride of the rhythm, the key changes, the sway of the trumpet against the piano. Illumination, the film seems to be saying, isn’t why we care about music or the people who play it.
So why do we care? The most powerful and telling scene in the film is watching Cheadle-as-Davis, who’s been shot, sit with a talented, troubled young musician and listen to him explain how to “open up” the music on the piano. McGregor hears them playing, quits searching for something to dress the gunshot wound, and watches the two prodigies work. Suddenly, the blood on the floor is irrelevant – there’s something altogether more important in that G minor 7.
We screened the film at the closing night of the New York Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall. Thanks to Fiji Water for the ticket.