“If you’re going to say something, say it with style,” Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis declares at the very beginning of Miles Ahead. So, take a moment. Put on your copy of Bitches Brew. Pour yourself a healthy glass of bourbon and appreciate. After the record stops, then continue reading.
Co-writing the screenplay and stepping behind the camera for the first time, Cheadle delves deep into the mind of a brilliant artist as they suffer through a creative block. Unlike previous musical biopics (Ray and Walk the Line, for example), Miles Ahead isn’t concerned with the rise and fall of fame and the subsequent rise to fame again. The film does hit some of the keynotes that all famous musicians apparently have in common – the drug abuse and the philandering – but these are more or less regulated to flashbacks. The main story of the film takes place in 1975, when Davis was in a half-decade long self-imposed seclusion.
Holed-up in his NYC brownstone, surrounded by piles of sheet music and liquor bottles, the once great jazz trumpeter limps around obsessing over his past and a recent studio recording session. Hallucinations of his ex-wife and muse, the ballerina Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi from Amazon’s Hand of God), taunt the tired musician, reminding him of the happiness and success he once had.
From here the film becomes more-or-less a standard buddy heist movie. Ewan McGregor shows up on Davis’ door as a reporter desperate not only for an interview but to bring his reclusive hero back to his former glory. Both of those tasks involve the elusive recording session mentioned above, which Davis has been holding hostage from Columbia Studios.
Cheadle must have been taking some notes while working on the Ocean’s 11 movies with Steven Soderbergh. The camera is constantly in motion, throwing you into the intense pacing of the action. Even during the flashbacks to when Davis was in his prime, there’s an intimate intensity whether he’s composing in the studio or fighting with Frances over his infidelities.
If you don’t know anything about Miles Davis and jazz (“social music,” as Davis calls it), you won’t learn anything from this film. Miles Ahead isn’t a film about the trivia of Davis’ career but the essence of it. Though the film doesn’t follow the cradle to grave format of previous biopics, it does indulge in the subject’s darker aspects, just as expected. The montage bridging a threesome between Miles and two nameless girls to his wedding with Frances is pretty clever. All of the performances are as good as you would expect. From Cheadle’s and Corinealdi’s bravura to McGregor doing his typical affable Scott and an extended cameo from Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Stuhlbarg in a pair of dark tinted glasses and thick mustache, they all are outperformed by the soundtrack. Nothing beats over an hour and half of listening to Social Music from the master.