Don Cheadle heroically plays Miles Davis in “Miles Ahead,” the biopic fantasia about the influential jazz musician that he also directed.
Cheadle is so convincing as the raspy-voiced, mercurial, no-nonsense Davis that you wonder why the character shows up at all for the silly bro-buddy comedy stretches that nearly hijack the movie. The film, which Cheadle also co-wrote with Steven Baigelman, feels disjointed in the way a piece of music would if someone tried to merge a late-’50s cool modal Miles with ’70-era electric funk Miles.
Those happen to be roughly the two eras of the artist’s life that the film unevenly toggles back and forth through as it spans 1956 to 1981. When we first meet him later in life (Davis died Sept. 28, 1991, at age 65), he’s past his many innovations, living as a reclusive, cocaine-abusing hermit. He has holed up in his Greenwich Village apartment, having not performed or recorded in more than five years.
Showing Davis as a musician of dramatically divergent styles is necessary for understanding his artistic breadth and enduring influence. After all, the fiercely proud Davis famously claimed to have changed music “five or six times.” Whether he did or simply became the face and voice of significant movements can be debated, but Davis didn’t live in his artistic past. He was the vanguard.
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Davis was first and foremost a jazz musician, but he influenced every form of modern music in his lifetime. He also cast shadows throughout the worlds of art and entertainment with his volatile public temperament and contrasting cool sensibility. Davis created a template for the modern artist anti-hero that his young Columbia Records label mate Bob Dylan obviously absorbed.
Davis was also vain and acutely aware of his image. One year he sent out a press release describing what he’d be wearing at his performances at the Newport Jazz Festival. The film hits and occasionally sustains engrossing stretches of the Davis persona, humanizing the unapproachable image.
Fictional reporter Dave Braden, played with smirking, bright-eyed energy by Ewan McGregor, pushes his way into Davis’ life, trying to break the story of the musician’s rumored comeback. As Braden becomes an unlikely accomplice in the movie’s sad detour into unlikely action-comedy high jinks, he activates memories in Davis. The story drifts back to the trumpeter’s great triumphs of the late ’50s, recording “Kind of Blue” and “Sketches of Spain,” and his first marriage to the beautiful and elegant dancer Frances Taylor Davis (Emayatzy Corinealdi).
Here the movie has magnetism and coherence, exploring the brilliance, strengths and weaknesses of an artist and a man. Corinealdi gives Frances fire and toughness to make her Davis’ match. The movie believably suggests their passion fueled his distinctive playing while they were together, and he was making some of the greatest music of all time while her absence gnawed at him in later life. Davis’ storied abuse of Frances feels understated, but the film makes clear the violence occurred and was a major aspect in her leaving him after 10 years.
As with many biopics, a certain license has been taken with the subject’s life. Several well-known events of Davis’ mythology are creatively depicted, but the invented Braden episodes undermine the film the most, just not enough to justify missing the film.
In the end, Cheadle brilliantly inhabits one of the 20th century’s outsized geniuses, thoroughly getting under Davis’ skin while bringing a mostly heard but little-seen man to the surface.
☆ ☆ ☆(out of 4)
Cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi.
Director: Don Cheadle.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.