The creative process of next-level artists is a siren song that has sent many a filmmaker crashing into the biopic rocks.
So many of these movies ultimately conclude that there's something unknowable about such people, it almost calls the entire genre into question. Why make a movie like this if you're just going to throw up your shoulders and shrug? Watching people practice their craft day and night isn't sexy, but it would probably give a more accurate view of someone like James Brown than Get On Up.
Don Cheadle doesn't bother with that in Miles Ahead, the passion project of a Miles Davis biopic that he co-wrote, co-produced, directed, and stars in. Ostensibly an inquiry into the iconic trumpeter's lost years in the latter half of the '70s, the film doesn't actually delve into the cause of said hiatus. What it does do is give a feel for his fragmented day-to-day: shuffling around his Brooklyn apartment in various altered states, calling a DJ to tell him to stop overpraising Kind of Blue and play some deep cuts instead.
Per the title (which is taken from one of the ultra-prolific musician's countless recordings), Miles' defining trait is frustration. Frustration with the suits at Columbia Records who want him to record new material at their pace rather than his own, with the reporters who want him to put the ineffable into easily digestible soundbites, with the fans who can't keep up with his skills. He dismisses the albums they canonize as "old shit" that he moved past mentally and musically years ago.
Which explains his simple response to the Rolling Stone writer (Ewan McGregor) who asks why he hasn't put out any new music in years: He hasn't had anything to say. Even if he had, what would be the point? Davis was among the 20th century's few bona-fide musical geniuses, and anything he released or even recorded between '75 and '79 would almost definitionally have been ahead of its time. (In his sandpaper voice and indoor sunglasses, he even objects to the term "jazz," preferring the self-coined "social music" instead.)
This makes it something of a relief — and, according to Cheadle, a necessary evil to get the movie financed — that much of the film plays like a forced bromance between reporter and subject. Hangout scenes show them hitting the punching bag in between lines of coke and fractured flashbacks. These grace notes are the most revealing of the film, as Miles in his natural habitat is interesting enough on his own.
The present-day plot, such as it is, concerns a session tape recorded a year earlier (in 1978) that Miles is loath to hand over to the fat cats at Columbia lining their pockets with the money he's made them. Meanwhile, his mind never strays far from Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), his ballerina ex-wife. Everything reminds him of her, and the paranoia that drove her away now informs his dealings with everyone else. Miles is simultaneously aided and deceived in the tape-retrieving effort by McGregor's character, whose ulterior motives for helping the musician belie his genuine fondness for him.
"Be wrong strong," Miles says while leading his band in one of the many memories Cheadle signals with a smash cut. His virtuosity has less to do with getting every note right and more with feeling something and going with it. As such, Cheadle goes to great pains to match the frenetic, freewheeling energy of that music: The camera comes in and out of focus, timelines bleed together (at least in Miles' mind).
Cheadle hits the right balance between Davis as he was perceived by others and how he saw himself — it's rarely been more apropos for a biopic to print the legend. However incomplete Miles Ahead can sometimes feel on a moment-to-moment basis, the fact that it doesn't presume to be a comprehensive overview of its subject may be the only proper approach. It's sometimes wrong, but almost always strong.
Directed by Don Cheadle
Opens Friday, Uptown Theatre