In a biopic about a legendary jazz musician, it can be tempting for the production to mimic the genre itself – carefree, improvisational, and loose. Miles Ahead is all of these things, but it goes the extra mile and remembers to be a cohesive film, taking two distinct periods of Davis’s life and weaving them together. The result is a confident film that knows what it wants to say, anchored by a powerful performance from Don Cheadle.
When production was announced on Miles Ahead, I was ecstatic, but the film isn’t quite what I expected, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Director and star Don Cheadle has a very tight grip on Davis. He knows how he works, his inner psyche, and what music means to him. The care that Cheadle has put into the film isn’t unnoticed, and it makes the film all the better. Cheadle’s performance is brilliant. While there isn’t a scene where he gets to steal the show, and I doubt awards will flock to this understated turn, he still delivers fantastic results. Davis’s raspy voice, his bravado, his “I don’t give a fuck” attitude, it’s all here.
Miles Ahead is structured like most music biopics, never comfortably sitting in one period of its subject’s life for too long. On one side is Davis’s drug-addled, improvisational period. Approached by reporter Dave (Ewan McGregor) to write a piece for Rolling Stone magazine, the two go on a wild goose chase when a session tape goes missing – this includes a last-ditch attempt to buy cocaine from a college student. Miles Ahead gets a bit zany with its set pieces, as Cheadle doesn’t seem confident in letting the plot breathe, but the banter between Dave and Miles is fun and one of the film’s highlights. We get to see how Davis worked (or didn’t work) with others, and his commitment to making a comeback in the late 1970s. The other half of this equation is Cheadle’s love affair with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), and the impact she had on his life that leads Davis to the reckless behavior. Corinealdi is brilliant in the role, and she stands toe-to-toe with Cheadle, keeping Davis’s ego in check and his feet on the ground.
Whether Miles Ahead tells a true story is a conversation for another day (there’s even a car chase with bullets flying), but it is always compelling. Cheadle’s direction and playfulness with tone allows us to see different shades of Davis, whether he’s in a meeting with the head of Columbia Records, or improvising with his famous trio. A layered performance from Cheadle himself leaves a lasting impression, and while the film might stumble and get lost in the details, it emerges as a fine portrait of a beloved musician.