A pet project of the now veteran actor Don Cheadle, Miles Ahead is the ten-years-in-the-making “biopic” of the legendary Jazz musician Miles Davis. Much like Davis’s approach to his “Jazz” music (a term he didn’t care for personally), this film is more of an impressionistic series of sketches, to build up a characterised idea of the man himself.
As such, the film largely plays like a suspended, drug-addled daydream, drifting between the cocaine infused “present” of New York, 1979 – four years after Davis’ last public performance and release – and the early 60s where he married his wife Frances Taylor and experienced racial profiling by the police.
The atmosphere Cheadle creates in both his performance and direction suits the narrative well. While there is no real indication how true, or false, anything that is happening here is, the film does provide an excellent insight into being a legendary figure in an art-form which isn’t bound by rules or conventions; this translates into Cheadle’s film-making form.
Miles Ahead turns in some excellent performances from its ensemble cast, including the always excellent Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Steve Jobs, Trumbo), as well as the up-and-coming Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12) and Emayatzy Corinealdi (Middle of Nowhere) as the aforementioned Taylor. Meanwhile, Ewan McGregor brings the film some star-power as Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden.
Reportedly, the project took so long largely due to funding issues, with Cheadle this past week explaining at the Berlinale how he had to write in a white co-lead role, in the form of a dutiful Ewan McGregor, just to get studios to back the film.
While this is a shameful reflection of the state of Hollywood filmmaking (and the perception of the film’s audience), McGregor’s naive, shaggy-haired reporter (who interestingly retains McGregor’s natural Perth accent), is expertly handled by Cheadle’s direction. It would have been all too easy to mishandle this invented character, but McGregor approaches the role with the right balance of subtlety and professionalism – even when his character borders on being the comedy buddy role – to avoid being an unwelcome visitor to the set.
So while Miles Ahead is by no means perfect, it does provide an interesting insight into the great Davis, celebrating his music while simultaneously questioning the integrity of his character; particularly his relationship with wife Frances and drug addiction. It is a quiet reminder than the biopic needn’t be an overblown show-pony, but can be an art-form of its own when properly realised – Cheadle does that here with some real class.