“If you’re gonna tell a story, come at it with some attitude.” A platitude from Don Cheadle’s reimagined Miles Davis becomes his roadmap for completing a film based on the iconoclast’s tumultuous life. Half-truths and white lies dominate the largely-fictional narrative, but as the dust settles and the music gets turned up, all that matters is the art and the artist behind it all. Perhaps the first impressionist biopic, Cheadle’s directorial debut paints an abstract picture of life rather than monotonously ticking boxes down a roadmap of time.
Sounds of a recording studio and a quiet, croaky voice fade in to a showreel of Miles Davis’ life, obscured by the blurry mouthpiece of his signature red and gold trumpet. A series of clever edits and match-cuts lead the audience down into the rabbit hole of Davis’ late-career hiatus — haunted by his own past and afraid of his future — while injecting plenty of humor, drugs, sex and violence to give it just the right “attitude.” Focused primarily on the relationship between Davis (Cheadle) and fictional Rolling Stone journalist Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), Miles Ahead invents and reinvents ways to characterize the complex artist in a fashion that best suits his multifarious existence.
Approaching his subject from a standpoint of understanding rather than from one of esteem, Cheadle’s experience as an actor greatly influences the tone of his film. Although biographical in nature — and the film certainly sees its fair share of factuality — the director/actor embraces the Davis that he has come to know and understand, playing with his assumed character rather than placing him within the rigid confines of reality. As McGregor told the real Rolling Stone, “It’s less a Miles biopic […] than an attempt to cast Miles in a caper flick that he might like to have been part of.” Like the opposite of television crime dramas, the names are all the same, but the events have been changed to protect the innocent. With his newfound narrative freedom, Cheadle is free to experiment with time and circumstance in order to deliver something bigger than a film based on the Miles Davis Wikipedia page.
Exploring themes that extend beyond drug addiction and musical stagnation, Cheadle wrestles with the complexities of passion and ownership. For all of his grandstanding about the control of “his” music, Davis is quick to disregard the aspirations of his wife/muse Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) — denying her a career as a dancer and completely dashing her hopes of monogamy. The trumpeter’s immense musical ability is second only to his passion for the craft (although scenes where he is actively composing/recording are few and far between), and this zeal only carries through into his love life. Haunted by images of his ex-wife, the late-1970s Davis can only experience his lost love through the music she inspired. Every note an anthem to her beauty, and each song a reminder of feelings long passed. Cheadle takes a stab at the emotional connection Davis (and every other artist) has with his music, and most land with a resounding impact. Hearing his “Solea” over the radio instantly brings the light of Frances into his dim and empty living room, while sight of the cover of (a fictionalized) Someday My Prince Will Come drags him right back into the dissolution of his marriage.
In keeping with the tempo and improvisational flair of his subject, Don Cheadle has succeeded in breaking through the standard tediums of biographical film. Taking a page from the Coen Brothers’ facetious use of “Based on a True Story,” the actor-turned-director innovates and ad-libs his way to a movie that is pure Miles.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.