“I was born. I went to New York. I made some music. Did some dope and made some more music and you showed up at my door,” says Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) to journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor). Of course, if that were all there was to the story “Miles Ahead” wouldn’t be much of a film. Luckily director, co-writer and star Cheadle fleshes out the story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest but most troubled musicians in a biopic that defies expectations. Expected: drug use and sublime music. Less expected: a car chase and shoot out.
We meet Davis as he seems to have reached the “more profitable dead than alive” stretch of his career. At the end of the five-year hiatus from music, and the world, the trumpeter is holding new session tapes hostage until his record company Columbia pays him $20,000.
Brill hopes to get the inside scoop on the Howard Hughes of jazz but isn’t above making a deal with Columbia to steal the tapes from Davis’s home. Instead the tapes or stolen by an enterprising music manager (Michael Stuhlbarg) who seizes the opportunity to make some cash off of Davis notoriety. This sets off a string of events that underscores the movie’s central theme, the idea that Miles cared more about music than his life.
Woven throughout are flashbacks to Davis’s early life, how he found fame and Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi), the woman who would change his life. The tortured artist scenes that make up the bulk of the film are the most interesting for obvious reasons, but the backstory fill in the gaps, explaining why and how he became the man he did. Undone by police brutality, long-lost love, drugs, ego, women, infidelities and health issues Davis emerges as a textbook example of an artist who channelled his restless, self destructive personality into beautiful, ground breaking music.
“If you’re going to tell the story tell it was some attitude,” says Davis. “Don’t be coy.”
“Miles Ahead” is anything but coy. It’s not quite as wild as Davis or his music, but Cheadle mixes and matches various periods from Davis’s life to paint an impressionistic portrait of the man, warts and all. He builds a complete picture, showing Davis on his highest highs and lowest lows. There isn’t much insight into the nuts and bolts of how Davis actually created his music. The creative process remains a mystery but we do get the biographical details that shed light on a troubled life.