Cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, LaKeith Lee Stanfield, Michael Stuhlbarg
Director: Don Cheadle
Writers: Steven Baigelman, Don Cheadle
When speaking of this film Don Cheadle has exclaimed that he hates the word ‘biopic’ just as much as Miles Davis hated the word ‘jazz’. He’s right to avoid this categorisation because Miles Ahead is far from a conventional biopic. Instead of compiling a sequence of ‘greatest hits’ moments from Davis’ biography, the film places its focus on a particular moment in his life. During this moment he is asked to consider how he would describe his own life. He considers this question by looking back at the day he met his interviewer and the events that followed. The flashbacks we see are not merely scenes from the past, they are memories that play out in Miles’ head. He interacts with them, inhabits them, and watches them on repeat. These memories are set off by triggers which affect him as he goes about his day. This film should not be mistaken as a retelling of Miles Davis’ life, it is an exploration.
It has been five years since Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) put away his trumpet and took a break from his music career. While his production company has paid for him to record a session for his comeback he has refused to hand them the tape. On this particular day the Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) turns up on his doorstep for an interview. Forcing his way into Miles’ home, he follows him around in an attempt to learn more about his life and music. The day that follows ends up being a wild one complete with booze, drugs and an attempt by the music executive Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg) to steal Miles’ new tape. Over the course of this day Miles thinks back to the romance he shared with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a relationship that ended in heartbreak.
I like it when a film resists the temptation to stick to the same generic format as every other biopic and actually tries something new. Miles Ahead doesn’t make any mention of his childhood or his early career or any of what J. D. Salinger called “that David Copperfield kind of crap” because none of it is relevant to the story it wants to tell. It depicts Miles at a point in his life when he is dejected, estranged and adrift. The only memories that are relevant to him today are those of his wife Frances whose face graces the cover of his album ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’. He recalls the moment they met, the moment he asked her to give up her career as a dancer and the moment it all went wrong as he drinks and dopes the hours away waiting for his next cheque from the studio. These flashbacks are not simply cutaway scenes that play out before the story is allowed to continue, Miles is actually reliving them. There is one moment where listening to one of the tracks from ‘Sketches of Spain’ literally transports him back to a moment in his past. The film’s determination not to follow the traditional mainstream format of biopics is reflective of Davis’ own nonconformist attitude and works well, I think, for the film. Some viewers however will doubtless be put off by this film’s irregular style.
Cheadle delivers a transformative performance as Davis, inhabiting the look, the voice and the mannerisms. He assumes Miles’ arrogance, swagger and obstinacy in such a larger-than-life way that the actor himself completely disappears. The portrayal is not a sentimental one as Cheadle proves his commitment to show the ugly, lamentable side of Davis as well as his ingenious, creative side. This is demonstrated most notably by the flashbacks of his marriage to Frances where Miles is shown to display infidelity, abuse, neglect and misogyny. The result is a complex figure who presents something of an enigma as an irrational, disagreeable, self-destructive man who somehow created music of incredible beauty and ingenuity. McGregor also excels as a reckless, intrusive reporter keen to solve the enigma.
Miles Ahead is not a film that will work for everyone. Fans of Miles Davis who might expect greater emphasis on his achievements as a musician or on the music itself will probably be disappointed. Other viewers are liable to be put off by the film’s impressionistic style which is quite alternative and improvisational, much like jazz itself. For what Cheadle has set out to do with this film though, I think he has succeeded remarkably well. Miles Ahead seeks to explore the nature of this fascinating man at a certain point of his life and to discover what his music really means to him. Rather than provide an answer though, the film paints the portrait and allows the viewers to decide for themselves what it is they see. One thing that is clear is that Cheadle was determined not to make a generic film about this remarkable man. In the words of Miles himself, “if you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude, man”. Miles Ahead has plenty of attitude.