Published Apr 14, 2016The quest to bring a Miles Davis story in some form to the big screen has been going on for at least three decades, but no one was able to crack the inherent challenges, most notably the length and distinct phases of his career: the bebop of the mid-'40s; two classic but sonically different ensembles in the mid-'50s and mid-'60s; his "electric" period; and his self-imposed retirement/exile and re-emergence.
Add to that the challenges of financing a biopic about a jazz musician, even the world's most famous one, and it's no surprise that Don Cheadle — who co-wrote, stars in and directed Miles Ahead — spent more than a decade trying to get it made. And after a successful IndieGoGo campaign and throwing in his own money, he still had to write in a white co-star in order to get the film finished.
It's the presence of that white co-star, Ewan McGregor, that turns a meditation on Miles into a fictional caper film. But in his intense portrayal, and deep appreciation for Davis's art, Cheadle manages to imbue the film with a sense of his essence — the frustration with his public image, the restless creativity, and in this particular period, a lonely melancholy brought about by a combination of drug abuse, isolation and creative stagnation.
The film is set in the late 1970s, near the end of Miles Davis's self-imposed "retirement," during which rumours of his decline, physically or mentally, were rampant. Dave Brill (McGregor), a Rolling Stone freelancer keen to write a "comeback" story, arrives on Davis's doorstep and inserts himself into some drama between the controlling trumpeter and his restless label, Columbia. Davis has begun recording again but is reluctant to hand the tapes over to the record company, who owe him some money; give us the tapes first, is Columbia's position.
At a house party that he didn't throw, Columbia execs conspire to steal master tapes of Davis's recent work, and their retrieval becomes a primary narrative thrust for the movie, as Brill and Davis buddy-movie their way through trying to recover the recordings. This isn't the movie that Cheadle is primarily interested in making, but he uses that plot — and the presence of the fictional Brill character — as a Trojan horse to get to the heart of what interests him, which is Davis as creator.
Amidst the tension of Davis's relationship with his label — and thus, the larger music business as a whole — are the challenges he faces creatively as well. Famously restless — he refused to play his best-known compositions, like Kind of Blue's "So What," later in his career because they represented a musician he no longer was — Miles Ahead finds the musician seeking new modes of expression. (At one point, while listening back to a recent recording, McGregor's character comments on his absence from it; Davis points out that he's all over it — playing piano.)
In his performance as Miles, Cheadle is excellent, alternating between creative serenity and coked-up paranoia, quick to anger and suspicious of outsiders. As a director, he's assured and steady without being flashy. He doesn't overplay the "caper" aspects of the stolen tapes adventure, nor does he succumb to any temptation to be overly "arty" in visualizing a musician's creative process. It's a strong debut that should earn him an easier shot than this behind the camera.