Don Cheadle took to crowdfunding to get his Miles Davis biopic, “Miles Ahead,” onto the big screen, and the liberty from traditional modes of Hollywood filmmaking is apparent. The film is an audacious, time-traveling interpretation of Davis’ life of a unique vision. That vision is almost wholly Cheadle’s — the star not only brings Davis to life, he also co-wrote and directed the film.
Cheadle weaves together two timelines in the story of “Miles Ahead”: a late 1970s period of seclusion and musical fallow for Davis, and his earlier relationship and marriage to dancer Frances Taylor (a luminous Emayatzy Corinealdi). The earlier period plays out like a luscious 1950s dream that spirals into a nightmare; the later one a hellish scenario that morphs into an adventure.
Ewan McGregor co-stars as Dave Braden, an intrepid Rolling Stone reporter who presses himself upon the reclusive Mr. Davis. The prolific musician is holed up in his Manhattan home, relying on drugs to treat a degenerative hip disease, calling up radio stations to talk back to the DJs. When Dave finagles his way into Miles’ life, the musician — initially reluctant — finds some use for him as a helper/driver as they embark on an adventure to repossess a secretive tape of recent recordings.
Standing in their way is a slimy record producer, Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), trying to angle his young charge, jazz trumpeter Junior (LaKeith Lee Stanfield) into Davis’ eye line, hoping for a big break. Soon enough, the tape caper spirals out of control into a drug-fueled, gun-blasting battle, with Dave the reporter acting as Miles’ bodyguard/henchman.
The young Junior, played with a hangdog sense of down-and-out cool by the excellent Stanfield, is a doppelganger of sorts for a young Davis — artistically genius, prone to drug use and involved in complicated relationships with women. We see the comparison, juxtaposed with flashbacks to the romance of Miles and Frances; two artists who made beautiful work together until Miles asks her to give up her own art for his.
“Miles Ahead” is a wild, experimental and improvisational treatment of the biopic format — much like a great jazz riff. At times, it’s wacky, funny and violent, swooningly romantic and sexy, or quiet and contemplative. Cheadle’s performance as Miles Davis in all of these different walks of his life is virtuosic, to be sure — and to be expected from an actor of his caliber. But here, his boldness as a director outshines his performance, pushing the limits of truth and fiction to get at something that might be cinematically true about the remarkable, eccentric Davis.
Cheadle’s co-writer Steven Baigelman and editors John Axelrad and Kayla Emter also deserve credit for the visionary approach to the story, which has musical sensibility and rhythm. The two storylines race faster and faster to their respective ends, crescendoing together in a great clash of emotion. The loose treatment of the story works well, though there are a few moments that drag, and a final concert featuring a mix of artists, while thrilling, is temporally confusing.
Restrictions on art provide opportunities for experimentation and improvisation that pushes the boundaries. It’s clear that as a filmmaker, Cheadle took full advantage of this liberty and imbued “Miles Ahead” with a freedom of form and content that’s perfectly suited for a jazz legend.
Enter to win a Miles Ahead film poster along with an Amoeba Music gift certificate. Register here! Miles Ahead opens on April 1st at the Arclight Hollywood and The Landmark. To purchase tickets and for additional theatre information, visit here!
3 stars out of 4
Cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michael Stuhlbarg, LaKeith Lee Stanfield
Directed by Don Cheadle
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Rated R for strong language throughout, drug use, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence.
©2016 Tribune Content Agency, LLC
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.