Don Cheadle stars as Miles Davis in this biopic of the acclaimed jazz musician’s life. Cheadle, who also directs and co-writes, is joined in the cast by Emayatzy Corinealdi and Ewan McGregor.
Consider my writing of this review as full immersion therapy. Take an uninitiated jazz rookie and flood his senses with a God given music and soul. Shutting out all extraneous distraction and allowing Miles Davis to drip feed his genius through composition and relentless invention until I am converted. Leaving behind a unique understanding of musical attitude, syncopation variation and studio recording, until finally these hallowed musicians and their importance make sense. Only then will I appreciate Don Cheadle, Miles Davis and Miles Ahead.
In trying to get people closer to an understanding of the impact he had on music something is lost. There is no easy way to cram that life experience into one film so Cheadle has gone the other way, by shaping his structure around a dynamic central performance. He simply becomes Miles Davis in ways that Jim Carrey became Andy Kaufman or Daniel Day Lewis Christie Brown. Cheadle disappears to be replaced with a coke addled, car crash of musical genius locked away from a world he considers superfluous.
By avoiding the traditional route of every bio-pic from Ray to Ali and onward past What’s Love Got To Do With It?, Cheadle has picked a braver yet more precarious route towards victory. Davis does genuinely seep between the cracks, but missing music sub-plots and Ewan McGregor divert our attention from the real subject matter. His reverence for Davis is undeniable and the level of dedication lavished upon that interpretation immeasurable. His use of sliding scenery and musical performance within dramatic moments draws comparisons with Confessions of A Dangerous Mind, itself an economical tale with more than one stand out performance. While Cheadle is ably supported by Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances Taylor and Michael Stuhlberg’s Harper, what ultimately saves Miles Ahead is the music and commitment to it.
Cheadle has always been an actor with intellectual overtones in conversation, but here his passions are laid bare. A man of merit comparable in talent to any A-lister currently working and refreshing short on ego. As Sketches of Spain draws me deeper into its web of melodic improvisation and Miles Ahead plays out across my frontal cortex in wide screen, it occurs to me I may have missed a trick. Here is a film which bares repeat viewings if only for the sake of enjoying nuance, discipline and dedication to an art form.
According to journalists, legend and musicians of some standing Miles Davis innovated his whole life. If things failed to keep moving he moved on. Uncompromising, irascible and unique in every sense, his influence touched people decade after decade without feeling stale. What Cheadle gives us is a taste of that genius, moments of that madness and minutes in the aftermath to mourn.