Director: Don Cheadle
Stars: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor
The bar is set so low for biopics that one can flip over Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis movie just because it’s out-there. Not only does most of “Miles Ahead” take place in 1978, deep into the jazz legend’s hiatus/drug stretch, but there’s also a car chase, a shoot-out and a coda where Cheadle’s Davis plays on stage in 2015 with a jacket sporting a hashtag. It has flashbacks to the glory days, but they’re relatively sporadic and they mostly revolve around Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi), the wife who got away. The story of how Davis discovered John Coltrane is talked about (briefly), not shown, while Davis himself, when asked to tell his life story, crows, “If you want to tell a story, come with some attitude.” He says it twice, just to underline the film’s renegade m.o.
But there’s more to this than shtick. Yes, instead of The Miles Davis Story, we get a rollicking, comedic sorta-thriller. One normal wasted day, Davis is greeted by a shady Rolling Stone journo, Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), on his doorstep. “I’m here to write your comeback story!” he enthuses. Then Davis punches him in the face. But Dave grows on him, sort of, just in time for Davis to run afoul of a slimy A&R man (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose hired goons have absconded with a stolen tape of sessions that may or may not become his first record in five years. Hence the car chase.
Peppered throughout the mayhem are Davis’ wistful/harrowing memories of a beloved bad relationship. Frances Davis — an occasional star on his record covers, most iconically “Someday My Prince Will Come” — is a co-executive producer here, though it’s no vanity project. Corinealdi’s Frances starts off as a gauzy dream girl then slowly grows in agency. At one point Davis demands she quit professional dancing (even though he’ll slip into a bed full of women shortly after a heartfelt phonecall). She quietly implodes before storming off, bristling at the idea that only one of them can have an artistic passion.
There are screaming matches, even a beating, but “Miles Ahead” isn’t out to remind us what a sonofabitch so-and-so was offstage. “Miles Ahead” avoids this, even as it depicts a real low-point in its genius’ life. Cheadle’s Davis is down and out, not working, can barely toot a trumpet anymore — and that’s how he likes it. He’s happy as a pig in s—: pulling guns out on execs; snapping at beloved jazz DJ Phil Schaap on the air for playing the overrated-to-him “Kind of Blue”; deploying a potentially Guinness-level number of “motherf—ers.” Cheadle makes not being nice hilarious, even endearing.
How much “Miles Ahead” actually has to say about Davis himself is debatable — but it definitely has plenty to say about how artists wrestle with their past work, their careers and their alleged responsibility to keep at the job of creation. As shown in 1978, Davis is no longer so interested in the horn. And why should he be, even if he was inspired? People only talk about the “old s—,” as he puts it. “But that’s the stuff people dig,” a kid tells him when Davis and Dave crash his Columbia dorm room to score some coke. (Please say this story isn’t made-up.) We’ve been trained to think of artists, especially geniuses, as Midas types, though we tend to only go batty over a handful of works, and from a slim period of their entire career yet. Untold musicians crank out gobs of work after their prime, though only a few patrons bother to keep up. How many beyond the dedicated know much about David Bowie past “Let’s Dance,” or Bob Dylan after “Nashville Skyline,” or Jean-Luc Godard beyond “Weekend”? The throngs just want the hits, recycled ad infinitum by their creators until they pass on.
“Miles Ahead” entertains the notion that even Miles Davis — in fact, especially Miles Davis, and especially Miles Davis in 1978 — was annoyed everyone creamed over work that was long behind him, even if he hadn’t released new material in ages. Think about stuff you did even just 15 years ago. Imagine the world freaking out over things you made when you were younger and almost certainly a different person. Cheadle’s Miles Davis is a cartoon, even in the halcyon day flashbacks, but he’s more real than most artists depicted in movies. Though we barely see him play, you can sense that what ails him isn’t that he no longer likes music, or that he actually hates his old standbys. It’s that he always needs to push forward. He’s just in a creative valley. He wants to try something new. So does “Miles Ahead,” and not just because it’s Great Artist movie with a shoot-out.