You’ve got to give props to Don Cheadle.
As the director, producer, co-writer and star of “Miles Ahead,” he shrugs off the trappings of your traditional musician biopic and attempts the cinematic version of a jazz composition: repeated motifs, variations, codas, wild riffs and crazy improv.
It’s an approach guaranteed to scare off most audiences, but for those willing to stick around there are plenty of rewards.
The life of Miles Davis — as filled with personal upheaval as it was with musical genius — could be approached in a dozen different ways. Screenwriters Cheadle and Steven Baigelman have chosen a tack guaranteed to piss off many Davis fans by concentrating on perhaps the least productive and most demeaning period of the trumpeter’s career.
Set mostly in late 1970s — almost three decades after his breakthrough as a “cool” jazz man and years since his last recording — the film does offer flashbacks of Miles’ wonder years, as well as his doomed romance with dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), presented here as the lost love of his life.
But in the here and now Miles is holed up in Howard Hughes-ish isolation in his New York townhouse where he lounges about in expensive yet ridiculous disco fashions, snorting coke and slugging back expensive liquor. Sometimes he fools around with recorded sounds but creativity has little room in a life awash with paranoia and self-pity.
As one observer comments, at this point Miles Davis is probably worth more dead than alive.
The plot kicks in with the arrival of David Brill (Ewan McGregor), who claims to be on an assignment from Rolling Stone. As it turns out, the journalist becomes Miles’ wingman on a series of odd adventures, foremost among them is justice for the theft of a tape recording that an unscrupulous music producer thinks could be worth a fortune.
Armed to the teeth and fueled by drugs, Miles and the bewilderedly fascinated David go off to seek justice.
“Miles Ahead” functions both as iconography and as sobering analysis. Cheadle knows that the late-70 Miles was a horrifying mess, borderline delusional and scarily violent.
But he was also a true artist, stubbornly clinging to his vision and profoundly articulate when he needed to be. And in the ’80s Miles emerged once again as an essential and groundbreaking musician.
The film’s incessant time-shifting and dips into near-comical exhibitions of gun waving can be a tough sell.
Thankfully, we have Cheadle’s fully-realized portrayal. Physically and vocally he nails it (love that raspy, intimidating whisper), and his trumpet playing sure looks like the real thing. But it’s the emotional power, unapologetic arrogance and fierce intellect exhibited by his Miles Davis that sucks us in.
Sometimes he’s a fascinating freak show. Sometimes he exudes an innate nobility.
Whatever mode he’s in, when he’s on screen you can’t look anywhere else.