Movie review: ‘Miles Ahead’ hits the right note
True to its title “Miles Ahead” is miles ahead of most music biopics. Like last week’s Chet Baker profile, “Born to Be Blue,” it ditches the tried-and-blah template in favor of a fudge-the-facts approach in telling an improvised version of the life of Baker’s contemporary, jazz great Miles Davis.
Releasing two avant-garde, blow-your-freaky-trumpet enterprises in such a short space of time is a bit predatory, but it’s also an embarrassment of riches. It’s also fun to compare and contrast the stylings of Baker and Davis and those of their respective profilers, Robert Budreau and Don Cheadle. Both filmmakers nail directorial debuts in which they also knock out knockout scripts that deftly use fiction to explore the realities of two legends whose genius defied their plethora of shortcomings. But Cheadle goes Budreau one better by also starring, delivering yet another of his flawless performances as the ornery, raspy-voiced Davis, a master musician who freely indulged his wants for women and drugs.
It’s really something, too. Donning shades and a medusa-like mane of Jheri curls, Cheadle completely disappears into a role he was born to play. At once he makes Davis charmingly arrogant and captivating. Like the prize-fighters he idolizes, Davis is also a little bit dangerous, with a hair trigger that won’t suffer fools like Ewan McGregor’s Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill. It’s Brill who gets the movie rolling, knocking on Davis’ Upper West Side door (circa 1980) hoping to land an interview with the reclusive musician who five years earlier declared a self-imposed moratorium on recording and performing.
Davis, of course, slams the door on the annoying intruder. But since Brill is played by McGregor you know it’s only a matter of time before the reporter gets his scoop. And when he does, Brill and Davis instantly become “Odd Couple” catnip, as the two actors form an endearing yin-and-yang duet. They even go on a zany adventure trying to retrieve a master tape of Davis’ latest material that was stolen by a skeevy record producer (the always terrific Michael Stuhlberg) and his hot new jazz star (Keith Stanfield). And is their quest really ending in a gun battle? Well, yes. But like I said, 80 percent of what’s in the movie is bogus, albeit largely entertaining. But it’s what’s real that hits the highest emotional notes. And most of that comes courtesy of flashbacks by Davis to his days as a budding sensation, both on the stage and in the studio, where we see him working like Jazz’s version of Brian Wilson creating wildly imaginative arrangements that impress even the most veteran producers.
We also learn that Davis had a certified, indispensable muse in his beloved Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi in a dazzling breakout performance), the woman who gave up a promising dance career to eventually become his wife — and grace the cover of one of his most acclaimed albums, “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Theirs was a turbulent marriage, and Cheadle and Corinealdi are superb at projecting all the joy, pain and despair they brought to each other. And it’s that raw emotion that gives “Miles Ahead” its power. Well, that and the music, which, goes without saying, is terrific.
My only problem is that the screenplay, which Cheadle wrote with Steven Baigelman, is too chaotic. It’s full of inventive scenes and intriguing characters that don’t always coalesce, leaving the movie feeling a bit disjointed. I know it was Cheadle’s intent to mirror Davis’ improvisational nature, but it doesn’t always work. But it never gets in the way of giving us a full-bodied interpretation of Miles Davis and his lofty place in American music. Just don’t call what he played jazz. “It’s sacred music,” Davis is quick to correct those who make the faux pas. And if that’s what a man with Miles Davis’ cred demands, who are we to argue?
— Al Alexander covers movies for the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Cast includes Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor and Emayatzy Corinealdi.
(R for strong language throughout, drug use, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence.)