Directed by: Don Cheadle.
Written by: Steven Baigelman & Don Cheadle and Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson.
Starring: Don Cheadle (Miles Davis), Ewan McGregor (Dave Braden), Emayatzy Corinealdi (Frances Taylor), Keith Stanfield (Junior), Michael Stuhlbarg (Harper Hamilton).
The formula for the musical biopic is well-established – and has been for decades. Musicians who get biopics made about them usually share quite a bit in common – struggle in the beginning, success, success that is then threatened by a life of excess – drugs, alcohol, sex, etc. – that the performer either conquerors – often with the help of a beautiful woman (because the artists who get these films made about them are almost always men), and moves on to a new chapter in their career, or doesn’t overcome, and whose life ends tragically young. You get the idea. Some good movies have been made using this formula – actors in particular love them, because it allows them to do an impersonation of a famous person, which is often a way to get an Oscar nomination. But in recent years, there has been a welcome few movies that really do try and do something different with the formula. Todd Haynes I’m Not There about Bob Dylan in the best of these – a film that has multiple actors play Dylan at different stages of his life and career, which explains a lot about him, but leaves the enigma in place. Last year’s Love & Mercy is another one – with two actors playing Brian Wilson at different points in his life as his struggles with mental illness. Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead, about Miles Davis, isn’t as good as either of those films – but in the film, he really does try to do something different than the typical musical biopic. It doesn’t always work – the structure of the movie doesn’t always make sense, but it’s an ambitious project for the actor’s first film as a director. It’s clearly a labor of love, so it’s hard to be too hard on the film – which is fascinating, flaws and all.
The majority of Miles Ahead takes place over a single day in the late 1970s. Davis has been on hiatus since 1975 – he has said that health concerns have kept him from playing, but part of the blockage could be mental as well. On this particular day, he is visited by a Rolling Stone journalist – Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) who wants to do a story about Davis, and his issues. Davis is currently arguing with his record label – he has recorded some new material, and they want to hear it – and he doesn’t want to let go of the tape. An ambitious, and sleazy, music manager Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg) thinks if he can get the tapes, it will be good for him – and Hamilton’s young protégé, Junior (Keith Stainfield), a horn player like Davis (who also has drug issues like Davis) may be the person who can get it. As the day progresses, certain incidents bring to Davis mind things from his past – which we experience in flashback – most of them having to do with his now former wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a relationship Davis clearly wishes he didn’t scream up. Strangely for a biopic, Cheadle and company haven’t hidden the fact that most of the movie – at least the stuff over that day and night in the late 1970s, is completely made up. There was no Rolling Stone journalist, there probably wasn’t a Junior, and there was no car chase and gunfight as happens in the movie. It hardly matters – Cheadle and company aren’t really making a movie about the facts – but about Davis and his state of mind during that period, where he was paralyzed by fear that he could never be what he once was. Maybe he was right.
It should come as no surprise that Cheadle delivers a great performance as Davis – it’s his best work in years really, as he has basically spent the last half decade making his TV show House of Lies or else playing James Rhodes aka War Machine in the Marvel movies. Watching him as Davis reminds you of how electric an actor he can be – the guy who was so good in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), Boogie Nights (1997), Out of Sight (1998), Traffic (2000), Hotel Rwanda (2004) or the little seen Talk to Me (2007). He has an ensemble as garish as anything in Boogie Nights – complete with huge sunglasses, and strange hair, along with a raspy voice constantly sounds as if he’s just fed up and tired. He has a tough guy persona, without actually revealing himself to be very tough – he doesn’t need to. He’s Miles Davis after all, and even if it’s been a few years, everyone still knows who he is. It’s a great performance.
No else in the movie can really match Cheadle. Stanfield, as the jittery, nervous Junior comes closest. McGregor is just along for the ride – fitting, since his character is as well. Emayatzy Corinealdi takes the usually rather thankless role of the wife in the musical biopic, and adds some humanity. We never really see what finally ended their relationship – but we see enough to know why.
I don’t think Cheadle ever really gets a handle on the structure of the film. The scenes in the past and present don’t really gel together in a meaningful way (why this incident in the present, brings to mind that memory from the past usually makes no sense). The film drags at times, and is outright silly at others – the aforementioned car chase and gunfight for example. As a director, I know Cheadle is trying to do something other than the same old biopic material – fictionalizing the story in a rather daring way. He leaves at least as many questions unanswered as he answers – that doesn’t strike me as an attempt to be unambiguous however – rather than just ill thought through.