After reclusive jazz-trumpet legend Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) is doorstepped by dodgy music journalist Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), the pair form an unlikely alliance to retrieve a stolen music tape.
Eyes hidden behind huge sunglasses, his hair wild and long, voice modulated into a rich, husky whisper, Don Cheadle announces in Miles Ahead that “when you’re creating your own shit, man… the sky is the limit.” And, with this passion project — Cheadle directs for the first time, co-writes (with Steven Baigelman), produces and stars as Miles Davis — he’s certainly aimed to push the limits of the biopic.
Cheadle should have fully heeded his own character’s counsel: 'Come with some attitude, man.'
The hub of the plot is a fictional crime caper set on the streets of late-’70s Manhattan. Cheadle’s Davis is frazzled, coke-addicted and apparently creatively spent. It’s an engaging portrayal, enlarging this already larger-than-life figure into someone who’ll sock a journalist (McGregor) in the face for using the phrase “comeback piece” before dragging them along on a gun-toting quest to retrieve a stolen tape of unreleased recordings (Michael Stuhlbarg going full sleaze as the light-fingered record executive).
Interestingly, this is all framed by an apparently unconnected TV interview with Cheadle-as-Davis, the events kicking off as he puts his trumpet to his lips, and concluding as he pulls it away. So the suggestion is he’s ‘playing’ the entire movie: his music being the ideal delivery method for his myth. It’s a bold and effective device, and the kind of thing you’d expect from a screenplay with Baigelman’s name on it, given he’d already played with the format in the non-linear, James Brown-focused Get On Up.
The problem comes when the film segues into flashbacks which depict Davis at his peak two decades earlier and chart his rocky relationship with dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Presented as ’70s Miles blearily looking back on what went wrong with his life, this introduces biopic-by-numbers material and gives Corinealdi little to grapple with beyond the usual wronged-woman clichés. It feels like a token attempt to tell a bigger, more traditional story, taking us on too many dull diversions from an otherwise entertainingly crazed look at a music legend. Cheadle should have fully heeded his own character’s counsel: “Come with some attitude, man. Don’t get all corny with this shit.”
A largely inventive and energetic portrayal of a past-their-prime music legend that’s let down by its unnecessary trad biopic beats.