What a strange movie Miles Ahead is. Don Cheadle co-wrote, directed, and stars in the film about one of the greatest geniuses of jazz (or, as Davis called it, “social music”) but this is not a cradle-to-grave biopic. There’s no moment when a young boy touches a trumpet for the first time, no moment of discovery, no Behind the Music-style rise and fall.
Instead, Cheadle focuses on two parts of Davis’ life. The most prominent is in the late ’70s, when Davis stopped playing music for five years, and didn’t even touch his horn. He is in a dispute with Columbia Records, and a reporter from Rolling Stone (Ewan McGregor) comes knocking on his door. Davis first wants to shoot him, but then lets him tag along, mostly because he has a driver’s license.
The other segment of Davis’ life is at the top of his career, perhaps the late ’50s, when he plays with his own quintet and meets and weds his first wife, Frances Taylor. The most notable part of these flashbacks are when he is arrested for loitering right in front of the club he is playing, with his name on the poster.
But most of the film is ’70s Davis, wearing a red tracksuit, snorting coke, and playing with guns. The issue is tapes that Davis has made that Columbia insists they own. Michael Stuhlbarg plays an unscrupulous executive (a tautology) who employs a young trumpet player to steal them, and Davis and McGregor, like a mixed-race Starsky and Hutch, try to get them back.
Clearly Cheadle is a fan of Davis’, but I’m at a loss to explain how this is the testament to his devotion. I came away knowing little about Davis or his music, as Cheadle has turned him into an action figure. McGregor’s character is a complete fabrication, as I imagine are the gunfights and car chases are. We hear the music, but there’s no context. I’ve read more interesting things about Davis–how his father helped him kick a heroin habit, about how he said he would like to spend the last hour of his life choking a white man, or his marriage to Cicely Tyson. But none of that is here. What’s next–John Coltrane solving a murder?
Cheadle is very good at Davis, and gets the raspy voice and mannerisms down. What fails the movie is the cockamamie plot. I suggest those unfamiliar with Davis find themselves a good documentary, or just listen to the records.