Don Cheadle deftly sidesteps the pedestrian potholes of the biographical drama in his debut as writer-director, Miles Ahead, also taking on the role of mercurial 20th century jazz innovator Miles Davis. “If you’re gonna tell a story, man, come with some attitude,” the reclusive protagonist instructs a bamboozling reporter on the trail of a comeback piece. “Don’t be all corny with this shit.” Cheadle honors that advice in a film that’s loose often to the point of messiness. But its freeform riffs on highs and lows from the musician’s life are a fine example of structure emulating the ever-evolving style of an artist defined by unrelenting experimentation.
While a spring launch reportedly is being mulled, Sony Pictures Classics has not yet locked down a date for the 2016 release. However, it’s not inconceivable that positive reaction to the New York Film Festival closing-night premiere might prompt the company to move the biopic into the awards-season mix with an end-of-year qualifying release. Whenever it opens, the film should prove a prestige draw for jazz enthusiasts hungry for an adventurous, music-saturated depiction of one of the genre’s undisputed greats — even if it’s unlikely to crack the mainstream.
Cheadle shares writing duties with Steven Baigelman, who had a story credit on the similarly unconventional 2014 James Brown biopic, Get On Up. Miles Ahead doesn’t have an outrageously flamboyant, fourth-wall-breaking central figure to match that pic, and Cheadle’s approach makes it clear from the outset that Davis was too elusive a man for straightforward portraiture. (Davis even rejects the term “jazz,” preferring “social music.”) But his tribute to the artist is energized at every step by a fitting improvisational spirit, echoed onscreen in Davis’ performances, and also in his thoughts on everything from Chopin to boxing to ballet.
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The film’s entry point is the five-year gap in Davis’ output during the second half of the 1970s, when the musician remained holed up in his New York home, besieged by chronic pain from a degenerative hip condition and addled by drugs. The script uses the familiar figure of a crafty journalist to get a literal foot in the door, when Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), claiming to be on assignment from Rolling Stone, doesn’t let a punch in the nose deter him from a juicy story. The existence of an unheard session tape that falls into the hands of unscrupulous record producer Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Miles’ reckless attempts to recover it, drive much of the late-’70s action.
Braden gets around Davis’ disdain for music reporters by hooking him up with some primo blow in an amusing scene with a trust-fund brat dealing on the Columbia campus (Austin Lyon), who happens to be a fan. The interaction of reporter and subject becomes a lesson in expanded perspective for Braden, as his preconceptions about “jazz’s Howard Hughes” are broken down. He gets to witness firsthand the bullying strategies of the record company and the opportunism of friends and former lovers who exploit Davis’ celebrity.
For his part, Davis is subject to constant triggers that transport him to earlier decades, whether performing, working in the studio or reliving his romance and marriage with dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corindealdi), who became his muse until the relationship disintegrated due to his drug use, violence, infidelity and possessiveness.
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These scenes are not the usual tidy flashbacks. Instead, editors John Axelrad and Kayla Emter weave them in impressionistically as spontaneous, mostly fluid fragments from the past — some whole and lucid, others fleeting glimpses filtered through the confusion of Davis’ current reality. Music also shapes the wash of recollections, seamlessly fusing Robert Glasper’s score with Davis’ recordings (particularly strong use is made of excerpts from Sketches of Spain), while cinematographer Roberto Schaefer, production designer Hannah Beachler and costumer Gersha Phillips all work within a stylish retro color palette, providing visual harmony in a film that often juggles different decades within a single scene.
The writers employ an additional device to explore Davis’ past, albeit in cursory fashion, introducing the meta-fictional character of Junior (Lakeith Lee Stanfield, from Short Term 12), a brilliant young jazz trumpeter handled by Harper. The producer’s plan is that Davis will do for this emerging artist what he did for John Coltrane. But it quickly becomes clear that Junior is actually a representation of Davis as a budding star.
This yields some lively sequences of controlled chaos, as reality and fantasy blur while Junior becomes an accomplice in the plot by Davis and Braden to steal back the session tapes. (The resulting violence brashly introduces a more dramatic origin to the hip disorder that caused Davis’ permanent limp.) Even if Cheadle the director is less assured with the high-stakes, caper-ish car chases and gunplay, they reinforce the pic’s invigoratingly jazzy disdain for chronological, just-the-facts storytelling.
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The abstraction of the approach perhaps limits the scope of Miles Ahead as an acting showcase, though Cheadle’s fully inhabited characterization nails the subject’s nicotine-scratched rasp and his eccentric irritability and paranoia with discerning understatement. More important, he conveys the idea of a man who was always composing and arranging in his head, haunted as much by past successes as personal failings.
McGregor brings humor and a renegade spirit to his boilerplate role, keeping the line blurry between Braden’s integrity and self-serving duplicity. And the gorgeous Corinealdi (best known for Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere) figures as an object of both sensual and emotional obsession, forced by the proprietorial Davis to sacrifice her own goals as an artist. The character is a vivid presence (the real woman’s face peers out from the album cover of Someday My Prince Will Come, alongside a tray with a few lines of cocaine), justifying the choice to make her the symbolic totem of Davis’ various spouses and lovers.
Rather than build toward the neat conclusion of an emergence from isolation, the movie gestures with economy toward Davis’ return to creativity, with Junior acting as his guide. Closing screen text lists Davis’ timeline as May 26, 1926 -, omitting the date of his death in 1991.
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The suggestion that his influence will endure forever is reflected also in a closing fantasy concert, during which Cheadle’s Davis shares a stage with collaborators like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter as well as contemporary performers including Esperanza Spaulding and Gary Clark Jr. The animated backdrop to this legacy performance features manipulated images from Davis’ paintings. As an ending it feels dramatically soft, but as a generation-spanning salute it’s playful, respectful and uplifting.
Cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Michael Stuhlbarg
Production companies: Sobini Films, Yellowstone Productions, Crescendo Productions
Director: Don Cheadle
Screenwriters: Steven Baigelman, Don Cheadle
Story: Steven Baigelman, Don Cheadle, Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson
Producers: Darryl Porter, Vince Wilburn Jr., Daniel Wagner, Robert Ogden Barnum, Don Cheadle, Pamela Hirsch, Lenore Zerman
Executive producers: Mark Amin, Steven Baigelman, Cheryl Davis, Erin Davis, Robert Lewis
Director of photography: Roberto Schaefer
Production designer: Hannah Beachler
Costume designer: Gersha Phillips
Music: Robert Glasper
Editors: John Axelrad, Kayla Emter
Casting: Victoria Thomas, Lynn Myers
Sales: IM Global
Not rated, 100 minutes.