Scott F. Evans
Miles Ahead, directed and co-written by Cheadle, isn’t some unduly reverent biopic that ticks off important events in Davis’ life. Instead the bulk of the film takes place during Davis’ self-imposed exile from performing in the mid to late 1970’s with flashbacks from the 1950’s and 1960’s juxtaposed throughout. This is where the film both succeeds and fails. The scenes taking place in the 70’s center around a pseudo caper with Davis and music journalist Dave Braden as they chase down a stolen master tape of Davis’ latest recording.
The performances are solid enough, but the film’s limited budget really shows as Davis and Brill get into car chases, shootouts and fistfights. The staging becomes confusing and begins to look like a television show. Even though the story is fictitious, this film highlights the drug addiction and despair that Davis was actually enduring at the time.
Thankfully, Cheadle’s wise enough to keep the pace lively and sprinkle in liberal amounts of humor. The film never does the typical biopic, making audiences suffer through yet another story of a musician being destroyed by their personal demons. Davis was musically silent during this era (coming off his experimental late 60’s output) so it’s ironic that this is where the film falters. Just as Davis gambled with his established style, Cheadle mirrors him with the film’s structure. And like Davis’ music of the time, it only works if you’re willing to go with it. If you’re a film traditionalist (as I am), it doesn’t quite work. But even though I don’t think it all comes together, I applaud Cheadle for taking this route with Miles Ahead instead of a more standard (stale?) approach.
Where Miles Ahead scores is during the flashbacks as we see Davis’s relationship with his first wife Frances. Davis composes some of his classic material during this time, but that’s a secondary concern. To be clear, this movie isn’t about the music. The music is important, but Cheadle is interpreting Davis the man, not the legend.
Cheadle is, of course, perfect as jazz legend Miles Davis. He’s so good that you forget you’re watching such a recognizable actor. It goes beyond the surface trappings of the curly afro, ostentatious shades and spot on raspy voice. What makes his performance work is that Cheadle makes Davis a human being.
As good as Cheadle is, Emayatzy Corinealdi matches him as Frances. A good actor, she’s also gifted with a strong presence and charisma that really comes off the screen. Corinealdi has the same pixie-ness that Frances had. The chemistry between Corinealdi and Cheadle is undeniable, and that makes them a joy to watch. Ewan McGregor also does good work as Dave Braden. He’s likeable and also has good chemistry with Cheadle. This character feels like a studio mandate, but thankfully Cheadle and co-writer Steven Baigelman never allow the film to revolve around Braden. He’s in nearly every scene set during the 70’s, but Miles Ahead is never about him.
Miles Ahead is no Ray or Walk the Line. It isn’t interested in tradition. It’s jazz, or as Davis called it “Social Music”. Experimental. Improvisational. Divisive. A crowd pleaser that’s uncompromisingly personal. It fails just as hard as it succeeds. If you’re looking for another paint-by-numbers biopic, take a pass on Miles Ahead. If you want to learn more about the musician, there’s a great documentary from 2001 called The Miles Davis Story.
But if you want to watch a piece of jazz… Social Music… then give Miles Ahead a watch.