Where to begin? And where to end? And to do with all that middle? These are the questions that plague and invigorate any writer, and perhaps especially those who task themselves with the responsibility of telling the story of a real-life genius. Which brings us to Miles Ahead, actor-writer-director Don Cheadle’s passion-project examination of jazz legend Miles Davis (Sketches of Spain, Kind of Blue).
Not everyone will agree with how Cheadle answers the key questions, but only a fool would say Cheadle’s take lacks creativity, heart, energy, and a gutsy willingness to take risks (as Davis says in the film, “Be wrong strong”). It’s a quirk of the marketplace that we’re getting, within weeks of each other, biopics of Hank Williams, Miles Davis, and Chet Baker, and even odder that Davis appears as a character in two out of the three films, but that’s a measure of the towering esteem in which Davis is held by fans and music historians alike. Cheadle does justice to Davis’s refined musicianship and creative genius while also exploring his hubristic fall from grace and the tortures that accompany it.
Cheadle and co-screenwriter Steven Baigelman begin in the late-’70s, with Davis in semi-reclusion, pistol-wielding, suffering from a degenerative hip disorder, and blurred by drug use. The hip disorder and dubious medications compare to Hank Williams’s conditions in I Saw the Light, and it’s hard not to think of lifetimes of martyred artists when Davis’s producer (Michael Stuhlbarg) acidly concludes, “Man, what a waste. He’s probably more profitable dead than alive now.” In the script's primary fictional flourish, it’s this Davis that music reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) chases for a story, and Braden gets more than he bargained for when he becomes embroiled in a scrum over a set of master tapes for Davis’ ostensible comeback recording (not quite as madcap as Paul McCartney’s Give My Regards to Broad Street but close).
Flashbacks help to prove Miles’ point “I’m a Gemini—I’m two people anyway”: in the late-fifties, we witness Davis’ brilliance in the studio and his volatile passion for—or insecure obsession with—first wife Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). With the Braden scenes, Miles Ahead recalls The End of the Tour, with an ordinary man observing and dissecting a possibly great one. But the more expansive Miles Ahead stretches its muscles in impressively yogic postures: in its evocative nonlinearity, its insights into Davis’s thought processes and philosophy, and Cheadle’s creative flourishes (using scattered Polaroids for a transition, for example).
Cheadle’s performances as actor and director mark the film’s greatest achievements. On screen, a focused, magnetic Cheadle proves simpatico with Davis, and the understatedly moving, potently musical flight-of-fancy finale demonstrates how the director Cheadle identifies with Davis’ remark “When you’re creating your own stuff, man, the sky ain’t even the limit.”