Inspired by events in his life, Miles Ahead is an impressionistic, no-holds barred portrait of one of 20th century music’s creative geniuses, Miles Davis. Working from a script he co-wrote with Steven Baigelman, Don Cheadle, who also stars as Davis, makes his directorial debut.
In the midst of a dazzling and prolific career at the forefront of modern jazz innovation, Davis virtually disappears from public view for a period of five years in the late 1970s. Alone and holed up in his home, he is beset by chronic pain from a deteriorating hip, his musical voice stifled and numbed by drugs and medications, his mind haunted by unsettling ghosts from the past. A wily music reporter, Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) forces his way into Davis’ home and, over the next couple of days, the two men unwittingly embark on a wild and sometimes harrowing adventure. At stake is a reel-to-reel tape of the musician’s unreleased compositions, which his record label, among others, is keen to get its hands on.
Davis’ mercurial behavior is fueled by memories of his union with the talented and beautiful dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). During their romance and marriage, Frances served as Davis’ muse. It was during this period that he released several of his signature recordings, including the groundbreaking “Sketches of Spain” and “Someday My Prince Will Come”.
Don Cheadle wanted to “make an entertaining ‘rock and roll’ movie about a multi-talented musician in a non-traditional, subversive way” and he has certainly succeeded in doing so. Art-house rather than mainstream in style, Cheadle wanted to “DO” Miles Davis, not just chronicle the highlights and lowlights of his life because “that process felt like Miles to me”. Cheadle had been steeped in Miles Davis’ music since the age of 10. The demands on him in making the picture though were great, including using social media to complete the funding, limited availability of his co-stars and the fact that he was in every scene, not to forget he was a novice filmmaker.
As with all biographical films, one of the issues facing those making it was what to include and what to leave out. Davis was married several times, but they focused on his time with Frances Taylor because they linked that with a particular style of jazz. Ultimately they decided to focus on depicting an artist “going fallow”.
Cheadle took his cue from Miles’ music. “Instead of a reverential bio, I wanted to push it every way I could, go out on a limb and take a risk.” One example of that was bringing in a character who is a talented young jazz musician waiting to be recognised, who they call Junior. He is actually Miles Davis years earlier, while Junior’s wife is Davis’ first wife. Cheadle and Baigelman’s script was visually oriented and keyed to certain musical cues. There is undoubtedly a raw and primal energy about Miles Ahead. It is certainly a warts and all account of a man who is on a downward spiral, one that could very easily take him out.
This is a portrait of a supremely talented but flawed musician, who succumbed to drugs and drink and infidelities, such that he became a mere shell of a human being until his resurrection. A complex screenplay keeps you guessing and looking for answers throughout. It is like a puzzle with the pieces not quite fitting together until the end. Some may find it perplexing and confusing as a result, but although it requires concentration to follow the rewards are there if you stick with it.
I have always admired Don Cheadle as an actor and this role merely serves to reinforce my approbation. Although here he has the added difficulty of directing, he tackles that along with his skill in trade, acting adroitly. The reckless portrayal of Davis also plays out in the representation of a number of the other players in the movie, including that of Dave Braden, who is trying to ingratiate himself into Davis’ life so he can write an exclusive. It is something Ewan McGregor appears to have fun with. But it is Cheadle’s Davis who is really unforgettable.
As the title suggests, Cheadle is already miles ahead of other first timers. Rated M, Miles Ahead scores a 7½ out of 10.
Director: Don Cheadle
Cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi
Release Date: 16 June 2016 (limited)
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television