Biopics typically don’t get made until their subjects have passed away. It eliminates the possibility of a defamation lawsuit should the studio or production company not obtain the life rights, a process often more trouble than it’s worth. But negotiations over property rights and moving forward with the cooperation of the estate are still hugely important for authenticity, which also don’t come easy. Just ask Sacha Baron Cohen, who was attached to the Freddie Mercury biopic but left the project over creative differences with remaining members of Queen; or Zoe Saldana, whose recent casting as Nina Simone incited heavy backlash from both the Simone family and from the black community in general. The Tupac pic, now on its third director, lost the first (John Singleton) because of what he saw as a lack of respect for the slain rapper’s legacy. The list goes on.
Miles Ahead was a different story. The plan to have Don Cheadle play Miles Davis had been brewing in the minds of the Davis estate long before it had in Cheadle’s. When the iconic jazz trumpeter was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, Davis’s nephew, having no prior contact with Cheadle, told the press that the Iron Man star was the only actor who could play his uncle. Where filmmakers can spend months locked in a tug-of-war between historical accuracy and artistic vision, Cheadle was in a unique position of power, which he exercised to its full extent. He dismissed a pitch for conventional structure and instead suggested making a film that captures the essence of Davis’s spirit by bucking the biopic form—a film in which, as Cheadle tells it, Davis himself would want to star.
Everyone got on board, so Cheadle proceeded to co-write, direct and star in what now amounts to a piece of Miles Davis fan fiction: Miles Ahead is a caper film with a refreshing sense of creative authority, chutzpah and goodwill. This biopic-turned-buddy-heist squares off in Davis’s New York apartment during the mid-1970s, a known dark spot in his career. With ailing health and a healthy cocaine addiction, his glory days slipping further into obscurity, Davis is an ornery old hermit personifying many has-been artists. He seeks validation by calling into radio shows and heckling DJs.
Miles Ahead sets the stage for an odd-couple buddy comedy when a wide-eyed reporter for Rolling Stone named Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) strong-arms his way through Davis’s front door, claiming he’s there to get a firsthand account of the artist’s comeback. After a series of convenient and unlikely events—a stop into Columbia Records after a years-long absence for a game of shoot-’em-up, in case the big guns upstairs forgot who really ran the show; a business transaction with a local college student/trust-fund baby—the two are chopping up cocaine and conversation by nightfall. When they discover Davis’s original recordings for his new album have been stolen, they team up to find the bad guys and save the Prince of Darkness’s career.
A musician in his past life, Cheadle makes a striking transformation in his role, parading a crown of Jheri curls and straining and rasping his voice to the point that he and Davis are indistinguishable. McGregor as his sidekick amounts to little more than an ornament despite a generous amount of screen time, but one of the film’s strongest casting decisions is in leading lady Emayatzy Corinealdi (Middle of Nowhere ) as Frances Taylor, a professional dancer and Davis’s first wife. She’s painted as the one who got away, the reason Davis lives shrouded in the regret of a broken heart (no mention of his two other wives). Accordingly, she handles her scenes with measured intensity, carrying the mostly male cast with voracious but tender feminine strength.
Cheadle teamed up with Canadian screenwriter Steven Baigelman, whose propensity for unconventional biopics about larger-than-life personalities was on point in 2014’s Get On Up. Much of the rambunctious, at times schizophrenic, storytelling used in that account of James Brown can be seen in Miles Ahead: parallel storylines, one told chronologically, the other in extended flashbacks; a flouting of traditional narrative in exchange for a more abstract rhythm; and a whirlwind of high, unfocused energy that has a tendency to overshadow the main attraction (the music). Cheadle wants his directorial debut to mirror elements of scat but it sometimes winds up scattered, skipping from Paul Feig-like rabble-rousing to memories from inside an empty, smoke-filled leather lounge.
Miles Ahead is massively entertaining but guided with a shaky hand, at times overly stylized and others stiflingly formulaic, a film whose quest for innovation within its genre may have outpaced its ability to deliver. Despite Davis instructing his band to “Come at it with some attitude, don’t be all corny with this shit,” Miles Ahead can be pretty high in fructose, leaning on heavy symbolism and thematic theatrics. The plot itself is a metaphorical exercise for Davis, contending with past and present demons so he can take control of his life and keep the music alive—or out of the hands of filthy corporate execs. But when he storms out of the record exec’s office in a fit, his eyes dart between two album covers mounted on the wall—his Sketches of Spain and Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’. It hits a little hard on the nose.
Still, during a rehearsal scene, Davis implores his band to “be wrong strong,” one of the many callbacks to Davis’s passion for improvisation. If Cheadle meant to communicate the messy rebelliousness of jazz music, then he succeeded through a messy rebellion of cinema.
Writer: Don Cheadle, Steven Baigelman
Starring: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Keith Stanfield, Michael Stuhlbarg
Release Date: April 1, 2016