Last weekend, I was lucky to attend a trinidad + tobago film festival screening of Miles Ahead – the impressionistic biopic of music icon Miles Davis written, directed and co-produced by Don Cheadle. Though he didn’t need anymore credits, Cheadle also starred in the film giving a stellar performance as Davis while juggling his many production hats. Miles Ahead usurps traditional biopic tropes and rather, uses notes from real life events to create a theatrical – and sometimes comical – genre smashup. It’s part action, part romance, part comedy-drama.
The film centers on a two-day period in Davis’ life during his self-imposed retirement. In the late 1970s, Davis, who achieved mass critical success for a 20-year period from the 1940s – 60s, spent five years without even playing his trumpet. He didn’t release new music and his drug and alcohol dependencies deepened. In the film, Davis is being harassed by his label, Columbia Records, for a session tape that’s meant to usher in a comeback. After the tape is stolen from his house, a wild, bullet-ridden hunt ensues (car chase included) to retrieve it culminated by a shootout at a boxing match. Davis is accompanied on the chase by a pushy reporter-turned-sidekick, Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor). Although based on some fact, the story is mostly crafted from Cheadle’s imagination. Yes, it’s a wild imagination, but it works.
When the present scenes are interspersed with flashbacks to Davis’ turbulent first marriage and to the recording sessions and performances of classic albums such as Kind of Blue, Someday My Prince Will Come and the record from which the film gets its title, Miles Ahead, the audience is given a full portrait of the troubled genius. The editing of flashbacks is expertly done with the love scenes between Davis and first wife, dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) evoking dense emotion. Not to mention the way Davis’s music is intelligently accompanied by a score written by neo-jazz musician Robert Glasper.
When Miles Ahead debuted last year, the reviews were mixed. Stephen Whitty of the NY Daily News questioned Braden’s value to the story: “Is there anyone less likely than Miles Davis to want a white man to help tell his story?” he wrote. Cheadle, said the film needed a white actor to secure major funding, which sounds more than likely. Still, Miles Ahead was wildly entertaining.