Don Cheadle’s been involved in his fair share of biographical films (Hotel Rwanda, Talk to Me, The Rat Pack, Rebound), and he learned something making them: “To some degree, they are all historical fiction. To some degree, everyone’s taking license, because you cannot encapsulate a life in 90 minutes, two hours, whatever it is.” He shared this following the New York Film Festival media screening of his feature directorial debut, Miles Ahead, a film about Miles Davis—and not about him, as it manufactures situations from whole cloth, jettisons huge swaths of his life, and basically focuses (much like last spring’s Love and Mercy) on two moments in his life, interspersed. This unconventional approach is both the movie’s blessing and its curse; it’s what makes it unique, while simultaneously blunting its effect.
The screenplay, by Cheadle and Steven Baigelman (Get on Up), tells two stories. One finds Davis at the tail end of a self-imposed exile from performing and recording in the late 1970s, living in a trashed-out townhouse, having hallucinations, doing a lot of blow, and treating people badly. (Somewhat surprisingly, “Miles Davis Properties LLC” is listed as one of the “presenting” entities.) The other, framed as flashback, is the story of his tempestuous marriage to first wife Frances (the marvelous Emayatzy Corinealdi, of Middle of Nowhere), whom he considers the great, lost love of his life. (Somewhat unsurprisingly, she’s billed as co-executive producer.)
The driving force of the late-’70 story is Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), a Rolling Stone reporter hoping to write the big Miles Davis Comeback Story. Pressed by Brill to tell his story in “his own words,” Davis replies, “I was born, moved to New York, met some cats, made some music, did some dope, made s’more music, then you came to my door.” It’s a moment intended to convey something of his prickly personality, but it serves a dual purpose: it’s also the skimming, shallow approach most common to the biopic genre. And it’s an approach Cheadle consciously chose to eschew.
“I was presented with several takes on it, that I thought were kind of standard biopic stories, cradle-to-grave stories, chronological events in his life,” he explained Saturday, “and I just wasn’t interested in doing the story in that way with the particular artist, this singular artist who was always about trying to do it differently than it had been done before.” What he wanted to make, he continued, was “something that was different and more dynamic than something that a documentary could do a lot better.”
And in many ways, the movie works. As a character sketch rather than a profile, Cheadle has plenty of opportunities to luxuriate in the sheer, legendary nastiness of late-period Miles; honing in on the moment where he’d become a recluse and a bit of a relic, Cheadle’s got Davis’ distinctive rasp down cold, scores laughs and shivers with a squint and a stare, and mimes the recordings more than passably. (He also has a credit for co-writing some of the new music.) Most importantly, he puts across the sheer entitlement of this level of genius, as in the memorable scene where he borrows a $20 bill from the girl he’s with, so he can scrawl his phone number on it and hand it to the girl he wants.
That girl is Frances, a modern dancer and modern woman, and it’s a relationship that begins on a note of bad faith—in one fine scene, he pleads with her over the phone to bow out of a run of overseas performances, only to return to a bed occupied by two other women. But soon he’s demanding she quit dancing altogether (“You’re my wife now. Your place is with me”), though he chooses not to quit running around on her, and when she calls him out on it, things get sour fast. We’ve seen these scenes before, so Cheadle wisely takes out the (well-worn) dialogue and lays in Miles’ own mellow music as counterpoint, swerving left when you think he’s going right—as Davis so often did.
This sensibility informed the movie, Cheadle said: “I wanted to make a movie that I thought Miles Davis would’ve wanted to star in. To me it was always ‘Don Cheadle is Miles Davis as Miles Davis in Miles Ahead.’” To that end, much of the late-‘70s timeline concerns Davis’ effort to keep a mysterious “session tape” out of the hands of his Columbia Records overlords, who are so antsy for new Miles material that both McGregor’s journalist and Michael Stuhlbarg’s sleazy jazz agent become convinced they can swipe the tape and use it as a bargaining chip to achieve their own ends. It’s a clever enough hook, and results in a couple of entertaining sequences, but somewhere in the middle of the related car chase (yes, there’s a car chase) I found myself thinking, “Um hey, isn’t this movie supposed to be about Miles Davis?” (That business works better if framed by the Cheadle explanation, but unless he’s planning on adding a Tideland-style introduction, it might not come across.)
This is, admittedly, something we can’t have it both ways on; your correspondent has raved over the trope tinkering of kinda-sorta biopics like Steve Jobs and the aforementioned Love & Mercy—and, to be fair, I’ll take the floundering and occasional failing of a Miles Ahead over something like Pawn Sacrifice any day of the week and twice on Sunday. And the degree to which Cheadle and Jobs screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have led their press appearances with the it’s-NOT-a-biopic line (even using some of the same “cradle-to-grave” verbiage) indicates a keen awareness of how tired we’re all getting of the standard approach.
But that also doesn’t mean that their actual lives and real stories should be ignored altogether for the sake of “historical fiction”—and, if they are, they’ll have to hold together a bit more seamlessly than they do here. (At its most awry, the film calls up the otherwise distant memory of the 1989 John Belushi biopic Wired, in which the second and third leads were a cabbie guardian angel and Bob Woodward). Yet the performances work, the music is infectious, and Cheadle’s zonked-out ambition occasionally pays off; witness an electrifying scene at a prizefight, where all the strands unexpectedly intersect, like a wild jazz improvisation that somehow ties itself back together. Even when Miles Ahead is going off the rails, at least you’re not sure where it’s going next—which is more than can be said for most films of its type.
Miles Ahead premiered last night at the New York Film Festival. It is slated for release next year.