This review was originally published as part of our coverage for the Sundance Film Festival 2016.
For whatever one could say about Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s long-gestating passion project about a particularly fraught period in the late ‘70s in Miles Davis’ life, it can never be said that Cheadle hasn’t given everything he has to the film. In addition to stepping into the legendary jazz musician’s complicated shoes, Cheadle also directed the film, co-wrote it with Steven Baigelman, and even contributed to some of the film’s original musical arrangements. That’s to say nothing of him learning how to play the trumpet, in order to do proper justice to Davis’ work as authentically as possible.
That said, Miles Ahead emerges as the same kind of chaotic amalgam of sounds and eras and wild events both true and fictional as its namesake 1957 record that saw him expanding his sound beyond jazz and into world music, as well as elements of the classical recordings Davis enjoyed so much. The film chronicles, in non-linear fashion, much of the chaotic mid-to-late-‘70s period in the musician’s life when a mixture of destructive life choices and drug abuse drove Davis out of the spotlight, out of music, and very nearly out of his mind.
After a brief “end is the beginning” prologue in which Davis is being shot at while running through the streets of New York, the film jumps ahead to an interview between Davis and who the film will soon reveal as Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor, fine but ultimately extraneous), a fictionalized Rolling Stone reporter hell-bent on being the one to pen Davis’ triumphant comeback story. It’s known by both Columbia Records, Davis’ estranged label, and Brill that at some point in the recent past Davis had recorded a studio session, but he’s kept it under lock and key, more concerned by the time the film picks up with maintaining a steady cocaine habit and grieving for all manner of personal failures than satisfying label contract requirements.
Eventually Brill and Davis become estranged running mates when an ethically questionable lawyer (Michael Stuhlbarg) finds his way into Davis’ home and steals the master recording of that lost studio session. From there, Miles Ahead investigates the life and times of a musical legend in all his complication, with varying degrees of success depending more or less on the scene in question. If the film’s deliberately jumbled storytelling feels at times like a showier device than the film would warrant, Cheadle ably utilizes it in service of capturing the decaying psyche of a man trying to account for his many losses, personal and interpersonal and monetary alike, as he struggles to find his place in a world he regards with escalating contempt. Everybody wants something from him, from Columbia to the predominantly white hipsters who wants to party in Miles Davis’ home just for the scene credibility to even Brill, who’s at once the biggest ally Davis currently has and yet another industry type trying to get himself up the ladder by way of the troubled musician.
Cheadle does some of his best work to date as Davis, lowering his voice to a torched, aggressive rasp and switching between charm and menace so quickly that it perfectly captures Davis’ known knack for keeping anybody he wanted to at arm’s length whenever he wanted. He’s a larger-than-life figure, and if Miles Ahead is at times very much in the business of hagiography to the film’s detriment, Cheadle offers up a physical, wrenching portrait of a man who’s already lost so much and may even be losing the one thing that truly defines him, to himself and others; his refusal to even pick up a trumpet comes to mask a much deeper pain. And yet, for the film’s willingness to address Davis’ more vicious aspects, somewhere there is still the man who believes in the true power of his craft, admonishing Brill to not “call my music jazz. It’s social music.”
In fits and starts, the film matches the fire of its lead performance. Miles Ahead is far from a traditional, boilerplate music biopic, for better and worse alike. It’s a sharp examination of what the music world has been doing to so many of its stars for untold decades; though Brill cares for him, it’s not as though the writer won’t also take Davis to Columbia to haggle with a college student for more drugs to open a door of communication. After a confrontation in Columbia’s offices, when Davis refuses to release more music, that “he’s probably more profitable dead than alive now, huh?” Exploitation hangs heavy over Miles Ahead, whether it’s the many people drifting in and out of his orbit or the police who beat Davis bloody outside of a club at which he’s headlining or even Davis’ fraught relationship with his first wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi).
Miles Ahead flashes back to that relationship early and often as its foremost case study in the musician’s darker side. While they meet cute as Frances is a successful, talented dancer and Davis is already a name of formidable reputation, their relationship curdles into emotional and physical violence before long. If these scenes hew more toward the glass-throwing melodramatics of the genre, it’s also a bold maneuver for Cheadle to acknowledge with such candor just how cruel Davis was capable of being to even the people he sincerely loved. A montage of hazy Polaroids juxtaposes their blissful wedding photos with Davis’ many, many affairs, and before long Davis takes that marriage as an opportunity to demand of Frances that “I want you to quit dancing. You’re my wife now. Your place is with me.” Frances is at once the love of his life, a warm body he can force to soothe his many internal wounds, and a bit of property that should never dare defy the great Miles Davis.
Miles Ahead treats this frankly, although at times it has the tendency to couch even its most pointed criticisms within the larger dialogue of Miles Davis as an unqualified luminary. Even in one thrillingly shot late-film sequence that flies between a tense confrontation over Davis’ stolen reels at a boxing match and the final, violent meltdown that led to the dissolution of Davis and Taylor’s marriage, the legend stands firmly alongside the abusive junkie and is foregrounded just the same. And it’s telling that for all of Miles Ahead’s complications of the artist, the film ultimately still concludes with a loving tribute that imagines Davis in all his immortality as a modern performer, a moment that at once suggests his boundless influence and makes for a corny bit of hero worship. Miles Ahead is a more complicated musician’s story, but ultimately it’s still a celebration.