Miles Ahead Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi. Directed by Don Cheadle. Rated R. Opens Friday in select theaters.
For the most part, biopics that confine themselves to a short period of time in their subjects’ lives are more effective and engaging than those that attempt to depict an entire existence. Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, a passion project that marks the actor’s feature debut as a director and co-writer, at first seems like it’s taking this smart approach, focusing on a time late in Davis’ career when the jazz legend (Cheadle) was holed up in his New York City apartment, strung out on drugs and effectively retired from performing and recording music.
But Cheadle and co-writer Steven Baigelman take things one step further, building an entire invented narrative around the basic facts, including a fictional reporter named Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), who forces his way into Davis’ life and tags along on what ends up being a sort of low-stakes crime caper. Davis enlists Brill to help him get some money he believes he’s owed by his record company, and along the way they cross paths with an unscrupulous record producer (Michael Stuhlbarg) with ties to the underworld. Eventually there’s a car chase and a shootout, all in the pursuit of a confidential Davis recording that he wants to keep to himself.
The whole storyline is a silly distraction that doesn’t provide any insight about Davis as a musician or a cultural icon. Cheadle gives a great performance, embodying Davis’ mix of insecurity and arrogance, and the occasional impressionistic flashbacks to Davis’ turbulent relationship with his first wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), add a bit of much-needed context. But the movie never explores Davis’ innovations as an artist, his work with major collaborators or his influence on music and popular culture. Anyone not already familiar with his work will learn virtually nothing about one of jazz’s most important figures.
The end of the movie skips ahead to Davis onstage at one of his comeback gigs in the 1980s, performing with a group of younger musicians who clearly revere him. For the first time, the movie shows Davis doing the thing for which he’s most famous, but by the time it appears, the credits are already rolling.