This biopic about the late, great jazz musician Miles Davis is flawed but intermittently entertaining, lifted by a committed central performance by Don Cheadle, who also produced and directed the film (in fact this is something of a passion project, as Cheadle co-wrote the screenplay with Steven Baigelman and contributed to the film’s original score). The majority of scenes here are set in 1980, when the trumpeter was nearing the end of a five year career hiatus and beset by drug addiction. He’s portrayed as eccentric, reclusive and liable to fly off the handle, and this unpredictability makes him a fascinating character to watch, particularly as it’s so hard to second-guess what his reaction will be to … well, pretty much anything. The narrative blends flashbacks – during which Davis reflects on his earlier career and marriage to Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) – with a 1980-set gangster caper, in which Davis and Ewan McGregor’s fictional Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill forge an unlikely partnership. The story with regard to that latter thread is fairly thin: an impasse develops between Davis and his record label – eventually personified by Michael Stuhlbarg’s asshole A&R man – and this subsequently escalates during the course of a weekend to incorporate theft, gunplay, threats and car chases. Though Cheadle and the producers raised funds for the film from a number of sources, including one well-known crowdfunding platform, apparently the casting of McGregor was vital in terms of securing enough money for Miles Ahead to enter production, the theory being that the film would likely perform better in some countries with the Scottish actor on board. The problems casued by the casting – or the need to write or adjust a screenplay to incorporate the character – are obvious: first of all it’s a sad indictment of Hollywood that a film about one of the greatest black American artists of the 20th Century can’t secure enough funding without having to heavily foreground a white actor; secondly, who turns up to a movie about Miles Davis wanting to see the adventures of a fictional rock scribe anyway? (An entirely separate Lester Bangs biopic would be just fine, thanks.)
It’s not my intention to slate McGregor unnecessarily, but I’m sorry to report that on top of the casting decision Miles Ahead is the second new film I’ve watched in the past three days that suffers from a so-so performance by the Scot. Cheadle – by contrast – exhibits much more confidence in his role, which is perhaps unsurprising given the scale of his involvement in the film, though he’s also a better actor full stop. You could argue that the Starksy and Hutch-style silliness featuring the two is supposed to equate to the improvisational solos you hear in many jazz recordings and performances, which means the usual musical biopic scenes of the artist’s rise/fall/drug addiction/rediscovery of artistry, etc. is supposed to represent the rhythm of a track. In actual fact Cheadle tries hard to find the notes in-between with regard to the latter, giving over more time to a wrongful arrest, for example, than any of Davis’ recording sessions, or his wedding day, or his reliance on heroin. A more conventional musical biopic might have paid greater attention to Davis’ relationship with the talented musicians around him, especially arranger Gil Evans, or perhaps his importance within the scope of 20th Century music. Cheadle’s film feels incomplete as a study of the life of a famous person because of everything that’s left out, and it doesn’t find time to muse about what really made the man tick, but it’s also slightly more interesting and offbeat than most because of its refusal to adhere to type. The actor/director’s decision to aim for something a little different is certainly welcome, and Cheadle also makes some noble attempts to artfully match-cut scenes and move between different eras. However the excessive screen time he gives to McGregor’s character eventually becomes the film’s albatross, and ultimately it is a shame that all of the figures who actually did play a significant role within Davis’ life and career – such as Evans, Herbie Hancock, Charles Mingus or John Coltrane – are excluded or are incidental to the main action. Additionally, I wonder what the musician would have thought of the suggestion that 48 hours with a fairly-unreliable Rolling Stone journalist would have inspired him enough to break out of a creative rut. Still, it’s further evidence that Cheadle is wasted playing second fiddle in Marvel blockbusters, if it were needed.
Directed by: Don Cheadle.
Written by: Steven Baigelman, Don Cheadle.
Starring: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Keith Stanfield, Michael Stuhlbarg.
Cinematography: Roberto Schaefer.
Editing: John Axelrad, Kayla M. Emter.
Music: Robert Glasper, Miles Davis.
Running Time: 100 minutes.