The 53rd New York Film Festival came to a close Saturday night with the world premiere of Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s longtime passion project about the late great Miles Davis. An actor of Cheadle’s caliber attached so fully to a single film might be a rarity, and in this case it’s the lead role, the directing, and the writing that all fall in the man’s wheelhouse…and he co-produced and wrote original music for the film. And he was in Avengers: Age of Ultron just a few months back.
Interestingly, the similarities between the vigilante War Machine and the musician Miles Davis make it evident what Cheadle saw in both charac…just kidding. Miles Ahead is the best thing Cheadle’s done since Hotel Rwanda, or at the very least the most substantial role since then, and thus an overdue reminder that Cheadle is a fantastically likable leading man. He’s likable even when he’s playing Davis at his lowest point, a five-year creative drought fueled by cocaine and loneliness that makes up the majority of Miles Ahead, and through all the stubbornness and figurative horn-tooting (sorry) Cheadle still conveys the fact that Davis was overflowing with passion for his art. It’s fitting that the actor, who took eight years to craft Miles, matches the musician in passion for his own art.
As a story, there’s not much to Miles Ahead. This isn’t Ray or Walk the Line or any other musician biopic that purports to detail the what of its subject — there are no scenes of young Miles losing his breath at the sight of his first trumpet, no sage mentor Elwood Buchanan played by Morgan Freeman, no rough-and-tumble backstory, no backstory at all. Miles is a musician from start to finish, and as many critics have pointed out that’s just fine in the context of Cheadle’s film: the music speaks for itself. Instead Miles Ahead focuses on the how of its subject. Really all that happens in the film is Miles meets Rolling Stone writer Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), gets into some hijinks with him involving a stolen record and a few guns (and a lot of sentences that end with “motherfucker”), and then at long last sits down for an interview with him. Again, as a story, there ain’t much — it’s the telling of the story that provides the drive and substance of the film, and in that way Miles Ahead seeks to emulate the music of the great jazz trumpeter.
The intercut flashback sequences of That Thing You Do!-era Davis (two words: colored suits) wooing his eventual wife and then navigating the ups and downs of their relationship are at first employed in the way you might expect. Miles drifts despondently throughout his home, sneering “what the fuck you looking at?” at his trumpet, then he turns the corner and his wife Frances is standing there draped in brilliant light. Soon, though, the incorporation of the past into the future becomes more sudden, less controlled, kind of like that episode of Lost “The Constant”. In one instant Frances is falling after dancing in front of Miles in the early ’50s, but it’s Dave Brill who hits the pavement in the mid-’70s. The past isn’t only bleeding into the present for Miles, but for us too.
The scene at the boxing match is the best example of this. ’70s Miles storms in to confront Michael Stuhlbarg’s record executive about the theft of his new cut, and a fight breaks out in the stands as Miles and Dave exact justice. A quick jazz number plays over the scuffle — and it gradually becomes evident that ’50s Miles is in the boxing ring with his quartet as ’70s Miles struggles to get his music back. In this way Miles Ahead is far more stylistic than most films of the genre. The closest parallel might be Sid and Nancy, though the Sex Pistols flick is admittedly far grittier. But there’s a part in that film where Sid Vicious proclaims as much — “I’m Sid Vicious” — and the little wannabe punks giving him shit immediately scatter. At one point in Miles Ahead Dave gives chase after a young trumpeter he believes stole Miles’s tape, and the trumpeter’s band begins to give chase too before Miles steps in front of them. He simply raises his hand and the band freezes. Both Sid and Miles have that ability, the otherwordly power to call upon the legends they’ve built for themselves. Miles can walk anywhere and people in his wake say shit — was that Miles Davis? He can command people to do his bidding by raising his hand because, well, because he’s Miles Davis. Either that or he borrowed some of Ewan McGregor’s midichlorians.
Sure, there are flaws with the film. Few of them are even worth voicing, though, because Cheadle’s passion and Miles’s passion are so often intoxicating and intertwined. Still, one disappointment is that few will leave the theater with Miles’s music stuck in their heads. It seemed important for Cheadle to not simply run down a greatest hits or a history of the music, and indeed one can imagine that Miles Davis himself would have a heck of a lot more fun watching Miles Ahead, full of original music and fictitious hijinks (there’s no other word for it), than he would sit through a here’s-what-happened-set-to-some-music-you-like. That’s at the expense of Miles’s music being infused into the story on a greater level, but at least that’s not accidental or anything. Don Cheadle wants you to seek out the music of Miles Davis, to consider Miles Ahead in the context of the rounded notes of the trumpet, and that’s a much better way to honor the musician than the other way around.