2004 must seem like a long time ago for Don Cheadle – whose lead performance in that year’s Hotel Rwanda won wide acclaim for its humanity in a film portraying very knotty, harrowing matter. In recent years, his film work has mostly been limited to output from the Marvel stable, so it’s little surprise that he feels the need to cut loose, take a few risks and “be wrong, strong” up on the big stage. Miles Ahead, a frenetic biopic of jazz great Miles Davis, is his tribute to a troubled pioneer.
Written, starring and directed by Cheadle himself, the film is a distinctly personal approach to the muso life-story genre; largely drawn from Davis’ autobiography, it focuses in on two distinct periods from his life which interweave in telling a particular story, but not the whole one. It’s similar, in that respect, to 2014’s Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy – which alternated back and forth in time to arrive at a broader exploration of musical prodigy. We get to see the young Miles, clad in his favoured Brooks Brothers suits and looking cleaner than a broke dick dog, but the main story strand focuses in on his reclusive, addiction-riddled career-break in the late 1970s.
Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) is a pesky journalist desperate for a scoop on the great man, and his intrusions into Miles’ life provide the backdrop for the story’s modular narrative – no accidental nod to Davis’ pioneering approach to harmonic compositions. The trouble is, as is said frequently, he’s caught somewhere between two styles: he can’t bear to repeat himself and his past work, but he can’t let go of regret and reminiscence for the past (specifically his marriage to Frances Taylor, played in the film by Emayatzy Corinealdi). He’s ahead and behind, the sound of his own plangent horn from the seminal 50s and 60s records bringing a painful reminder of what is somehow gone forever and yet caught, phonically, in frozen form – certain to be replayed and replayed long into the night.
The film’s approach to time and structure feels musical – free-flowing without losing coherence. Whether that’s to everyone’s taste, of course, is another matter, but it has a playfulness which is hard to dislike. Its occasional forays into buddy-movie action territory might also frustrate some viewers, but when the script tries to be funny, it succeeds. Miles is a fighter, in every sense, rarely concerned about who he aggravates along the way. Miles Ahead captures his spirit wonderfully. It’s poignant but never po-faced: a must-see for music fans partial to the odd improvisation and bold re-interpretations.