When jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, his nephew announced that Don Cheadle was the only person the family would consider to star in a feature film about Miles. That was news to Cheadle, as no such movie was yet under discussion. But if visualizing something can prod it closer to coming to pass, this was one of those fortuitous moments.
Intrigued, Cheadle met with the Davis family and tossed some ideas around. They jointly decided that a straight-up linear biopic could never reflect the genre-straddling, inventive, improvisational spirit of Miles’s music. What they came up with as an alternative was a concept that will work for some, not so much for others: a more-than-slightly fantastical retelling of the period in the late ’70s when Davis had gone into temporary retirement. In Miles Ahead, there are bits here and there that are historically accurate; but they’re mixed in with a narrative that owes more to buddy-cop movies than to the musician’s actual life story, with gunfights and car chases and snarky banter with an entirely fictional white partner.
Cheadle calls it “meta-Miles.” It’s riffing on a life in art rather than sticking to the melody line, as befits a performer who wants to be known as a soloist. Co-author (with Steve Baigelman) of the screenplay as well as director and star, Cheadle reportedly spent six years learning to play the trumpet well enough to get the finger movements right onscreen, even while knowing that the sound would be dubbed over. He also studied boxing in order to include a couple of boxing scenes. The project may not have been his idea originally, but it certainly became a labor of love.
During the period covered by the film, Davis was not playing, not composing; in constant pain from a degenerative hip disease, addicted to cocaine, he stayed holed up like a hermit in a grubby Upper West Side apartment. The movie depicts him as living in the past even while he rejects past career peaks like Kind of Blue as passé, obsessing over his failed marriage to dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), paranoid and hostile. We first meet him badgering Columbia Records for payment for a session that he has recorded, withholding the tape until he has the check in his hands. A slimy record producer (Michael Stuhlbarg, looking like he just stepped out of HBO’s Vinyl) wants the tape delivered first, and resorts to mafialike shenanigans to extract it from Miles’s lair. In steps that fictional white sidekick who was added to the script to make the movie more fundable: Ewan McGregor as Dave Braden, a deviously ingratiating Scottish journalist trying to score an interview with the reclusive musician for Rolling Stone.
Braden wheedles his way into Miles’s confidence by introducing him to a coke dealer whose merchandise hasn’t been “stepped-on.” And so begins the caper, the riff, the extended solo in which the coveted tape changes hands several times and people get beat up and shot. None of this part ever happened in real life, apparently. But it keeps things kinetic in between the far more luscious, ingeniously edited flashbacks to compose-on-the-fly recording sessions with the likes of Gil Evans or the ups and downs of Davis and Taylor’s marriage. The angelic-looking Corinealdi makes a luminous and soulful Muse, forced to give up her own art as a top-shelf ballet and Broadway dancer by her controlling husband, finally calling it quits after his pain medications make him delusional and violent.
Somehow, in the midst of all the action-movie folderol, Miles the musician begins hankering to get his chops back. The movie’s convoluted timeline seems to suggest, erroneously, that his breakthroughs in jazz/rock fusion came after his period of seclusion rather than before. Serious fans are probably going to feel somewhat disgruntled with how fast and loose Miles Ahead plays with sanctified jazz history. But however imaginary his gangsta adventures depicted therein, Don Cheadle delivers a chillingly real evocation of the man himself: regal, scurrilous, aloof, fiery, witty, grumpy, brilliant and strung-out by turns – a man who knows his own genius and does not suffer fools gladly. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance that should rank as a career high for this very gifted actor: his big solo, one of the classics.
Miles Ahead is playing at Upstate Films in Woodstock until May 8. Upstate Films Woodstock is located at 132 Tinker Street, Woodstock. For more information, call (845) 679-6608 or visit https://upstatefilms.org.