Like many, I went through a serious Miles Davis phase. When, a couple of years ago, I heard that Don Cheadle – one of current cinema’s most dynamic actors – was going to play Davis in a movie, I got excited. The match seemed perfect. Cheadle is an adaptable actor but through all his characters there is a sense of magnificent self-regard tempered by great intelligence. Perfect for Miles.
The good news is that Cheadle’s performance in Miles Ahead, which is also his debut feature film as a director (he also co-wrote the script), is sublime, everything you’d want it to be. He’s got the look, the poise, the voice, the hubris, the supreme arrogance, the wit, the smarts, the fear – the whole package. Davis wrote a rather unconventional and extremely intimate memoir, so the things going on inside his head are available, and Cheadle has obviously plundered like a pirate. His Davis feels like the man who not only wrote the book but played the horn. (Incidentally but crucially, Cheadle’s trumpet playing in the film always looks – to my unskilled eye at least – damn perfect). The film portrays Davis in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and Cheadle strikes perfect notes in them all.
The other good news is that the movie looks absolutely sensational. Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer shot all of the material that takes place in the 50s and 60s on Super 16mm, and the grain effect he achieves, combined with the immaculate period art direction of Korey Washington and production designer Hannah Beachler, not only makes the film feel as though it was shot in period but also routinely and eerily mimics the look of Davis’ album covers from the time. The effect is that those photographs, burned into the memories of those of us who revere Davis, spring to life as scenes. It’s very, very clever.
Unfortunately, all of this brilliant, top-notch work is undermined by a seriously misguided script. The scenes set in the 50s and 60s deal specifically with Davis’ doomed relationship with his wife Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi, from The Invitation) while the “contemporary” action, the stuff set in the 70s – when Miles was long-haired, wild, and living in hibernation in his NYC Brownstone – is a silly and mostly invented buddy flick that sees Miles team up with a Rolling Stone reporter, Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) to recover a stolen session reel. Because this section is so patently false, it has no gravity, no stakes, and its frustrating emptiness colours the truer, more emotionally engaging marriage story. Worse still is that both stories consistently undermine each other by butting in and ruining the momentum; neither ever gets up a fair head of steam, with the result that the film becomes drawn-out and, I hate to say, boring: something a film about Miles Davis really can’t afford to be.
There’s no rule, artistic or otherwise, to say we can’t speculate or have fun with a real person in the context of a fictional work, but the shenanigans that take up well over half of Cheadle’s film simply aren’t dramatically engaging. They’re not just an invention, they’re a bad invention. It’s a great shame, because so many of the elements of this film are truly wonderful – enough, actually, to just justify a trip to the cinema. Recommended with serious reservations.