Don Cheadle stars and directs this fluid biopic of jazz legend Miles Davis, in which the actor has distanced himself from the term ‘biopic’ much like Davis moved away from the label of ‘jazz’ – and the resulting film plays with the genre while delivering an entertaining insight into the mind of a troubled genius.
The majority of the film takes place over the course of a few days when Miles is in the company of Rolling Stone journalist, Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor). Davis has been in semi-retirement for several years when we meet him; Dave is after an exclusive, and tracks him down to his apartment where the musician is living alone. Miles is being hounded by his record label to deliver a master recording of his most recent studio session, but he is insistent on being paid royalties beforehand. We learn that Miles is still haunted by the memories of his true love, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), and we see how they met and fell in love through a series of flashbacks. Dave makes a deal with the record company, without the knowledge of Davis, to return the master recording. Unfortunately, before he gets a chance to steal the prized asset, a shady agent by the name of Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg) beats him to it, and so Miles and Dave have to risk their lives to get back what belongs to them.
The film plays fast and loose with the conventions of the genre. To be honest, the conventions ony exist because we are so used to the lazy, often episodic nature of biopics, and so it’s refreshing to see an actor want to distance themselves from the term. Even more impressive is the way in which Cheadle handles the directing duties on this movie; there are elegant touches throughout which highlight the overall vision he has for the project as a whole. The flashbacks weave in and out of the narrative, but you’re never at a loss as to where you are in the story. The grand vision is played out with amazing brevity and yet we get a full sense of the characters.
McGregor, who Cheadle says had to be brought in as a way of getting the otherwise ‘black’ film funded, is also on top form. He captures the duplicitous nature of a desperate journalist but also allows us to believe in his better qualities, which begin to shine through later on. The relationship between Miles and love-of-his-life Frances is given a real emotional emphasis – we can see how much they mean to one another, and yet we can also see the forces that are driving them apart. The flashbacks don’t feel like flashbacks in the traditional sense, as instead they act as a glimpse into the thoughts of a man at any given moment – something we can all identify with. It’s those moments, no matter where you are or what you’re doing, when you suddenly feel yourself being thrust back into the past with vivid impact.
It’s all down to brilliant acting and smart directing, something which Cheadle deserves immense credit for, and there is – of course – an outstanding soundtrack to accompany the drama on screen. It all blends together wonderfully in this thoughtful and entertainingly engaging movie.
Miles Ahead had its UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival and will be released in the UK in April.