To fit a man’s entire essence into one film is no easy task and to tell a coherent story that doesn’t misrepresent Davis’ legacy is equally troublesome. Don Cheadle’s directorial debut Miles Ahead does its best to capture this brilliant musician’s true nature while also giving us a snapshot from a not-so-glamorous part of Miles’ life. Miles Ahead, which shares its name with Davis’ second album, is in many ways just that: one record, one section of a remarkable career that spanned decades. This “record” often skips back to detail earlier parts of his career, yet stylistically this feels far from a traditional biopic.
The film picks up with a semi-recluse Miles relentlessly being harassed by a reporter Dave (Ewen Mcgregor) from Rolling Stone, who desperately wants to chronicle Miles’ imminent comeback. They work off each other, reminiscent to partners in a buddy-cop movie. Its main storyline involves a record executive trying to steal Miles’ latest uncut record. If this isn’t taking dramatic liberties, then it is an unbelievable true retelling–one involving car chases and shootouts. While the story is highly entertaining, it feels far from Davis’ most important. The film sporadically flashes backs to the glory years for Davis, where he falls in love with his eventual ex-wife Frances and puts out some of his most iconic music.
Miles Ahead indulges in artistic expression to the detriment of its own narrative. Cheadle wants to tell a story in a unique way but struggles to keep both timelines playing in tune with one another. The film is wonderfully edited yet its seamless transitions from the current story-line to the flashbacks are unable to make up for the drastic changes in pacing and tone. The result feels like two separate films colliding into each other. As intentional as this may be, it hurts more than it helps, as you struggle to recall where you last left off in each timeline.
Cheadle himself plays the lead, adeptly capturing the nuances that made Davis so distinct. From the way he carries himself to the raspy voice, Cheadle breathes life back into this talented star. It is clear Cheadle has great admiration for the jazz icon; the direction and portrayal feel accurate and warm.
In a nut shell: I didn’t know much about Mr. Davis going in, and by the end of the film, it felt like we had only scratched the surface. Unlike Ray, which gives a more traditional timeline of a musician’s rise, Miles Ahead follows the beat of its own impassioned drum, which is refreshing although occasionally off-tempo. In the end, this film still tells a compelling story with creative flair—it just may not be the one you were expecting. (2.5 out of 4)
This is not the Miles Davis’ Anthology.