This quasi-biopic about Miles Davis is obviously a labor of love for Don Cheadle, but it’s doubtful that viewers will respond to it with much affection. One can respect “Miles Ahead” for trying something different from the usual rote chronological approach in such films, but its solution proves more frustrating than enlightening.
The idea, one supposes, was to construct the picture like jazz improvisation, with wild gyrations—some fact-based, others totally invented—that would somehow cohere into a unified whole. Thus the establishment of a fictional encounter between Davis (Cheadle), during his late ‘70s reclusive, unproductive period, with an aspiring reporter named Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor). Their odyssey is connected with the script’s MacGuffin—a recent session tape by Davis that’s lusted after by his record label and by unscrupulous promoter Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has a young trumpeter (Lakeith Lee Stanfield) in tow. The theft and recovery of the tape involves confrontations and even a car chase and shootout, but the important aspect of the recording is that it reveals the nature of Davis’ isolation and points toward the recovery that led to the revival of his career.
This overarching tale—most of it fictional—is interrupted by flashbacks, most focusing on Davis’ marriage to Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a dancer whose attraction to him was undermined by his extreme possessiveness, as well as his addiction to drugs and alcohol. The suggestion is that the collapse of the marital relationship was a major cause of his professional descent—a theme “Miles Ahead” shares with “I Saw the Light,” the recent biopic about Hank Williams.
One has to admire the dexterity with which Cheadle, his co-writer Steven Baigelman and editors John Axelrad and Kayla M. Emter manage to stitch all the disparate material together into a reasonably smooth entity, even though the shifts in time and focus do demand persistent attention. Visually the film also deserves respect, with production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Gersha Phillips successfully capturing the look of the period (or rather periods), though Roberto Schaefer’s cinematography occasionally appears ragged, particularly in the ill-advised chase scenes involved in Davis’ efforts to retrieve that sessions tape—sequences that might be intended as riffs similar to those in jazz performance but come across as rather messy.
More consistently enjoyable is the musical side of things. Robert Glasper’s original score is melded nicely with cuts from Davis’ own records, and the combination dovetails imaginatively with the narrative transitions. One might well wish, though, for more examples of Davis’ artistry, which is given rather short shrift until a concluding concert sequence in which he performs with other musicians—again, an imaginary confection that also uses animated images from Davis’ own paintings. It points to the resurrection of Davis’ career in the eighties, but that productive part of his professional life is only hinted at rather than shown in any extensive form.
Throughout, however, Cheadle demonstrates his chameleon-life skill in capturing the various states of Davis’ persona at different points in his life. It’s a striking performance, if one that attends to the surface of the man more than his inner psychological makeup. McGregor is hampered by a character that’s a cliché from the start, as is Stuhlbarg; and similarly Corinealdi is hampered by the fact that Taylor is barely explored, presented only as a supportive woman who ultimately gets fed up with her husband’s recklessness. Stanfield has a few good moments as the ambitious up-and-comer.
It’s indisputable that the film is ambitious as well. Unfortunately, it’s a case of ambition exceeding actual accomplishment—Cheadle tries for a high note in “Miles Ahead” that he never manages to reach.