For a biopic of a musician who once claimed to have “changed music five or six times,” it’s probably fitting that Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead isn’t much interested in following standard true-story-behind-the-famous-person template. There’s no cradle to grave story, no attempt to chart his rise to fame, and even surprisingly little interest in sticking particularly close to the truth. Instead, Miles Ahead is a free-form jazz odyssey of a film, flitting around time periods, playing fast and loose with reality, all in the name of capturing Davis in the sort of film he might have wanted to be in.
The film’s primary focus is New York, 1979, when the trumpeter was nearing the end of a self-imposed five-year exile from the music industry, but it also flits back, chiefly to chart his tempestuous relationship with first wife Frances Taylor. Don Cheadle, who co-wrote and directed the film too, stars as Davis himself, while Ewan McGregor is fictional Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill, who accompanies him on what evolves into a drug-fuelled quest for a stolen session tape.
Cheadle’s film blurs the lines of reality and dream, past and present, picking up on recurrent moments and images to drift through Davis’s life, making the true narrative at times difficult to track. It’s a bold gambit from first-time director Cheadle, who proves confidently experimental throughout. Fluid, mobile camerawork is occasionally broken up by lightning fast edits, but he knows when to slow things down too – especially in the musical sequences. Smartly distancing this film from the frantically edited performances in last year’s jazz opus Whiplash, he lets the camera settle and focus exactly where it should: on Davis himself.
The demands of the script see Cheadle embody the musician both in his clean-cut prime and at his ragged lows, and he does a convincing job of illustrating both the changes and constants across time. His imitation of Davis’s distinctive rasp in his later years can feel cartoonish at times, but he nails his unpredictable energy, the tendency to fly off the handle at a moment’s notice.
Those hoping for a faithful account of Davis’s sprawling career and personal life had best look elsewhere, but this is an engaging, occasionally moving, look at the man during potentially the most interesting period of his life: the only time he wasn’t making music. It’s bold, it’s ambitious, and it’s unique – a fitting tribute to the legend.
Words by Dominic Preston