This spring is starting to feel like a music biopic-heavy season in the middle of a music biopic resurgence. Some, like “Amy,” have masterfully captured the torment and hardship of their troubled stars, while others, like the forthcoming “Nina,” have sacrificed substance for controversy.
So, how exactly did star, writer, director and producer Don Cheadle (“Flight”) make his storyline stand out in a genre where sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (or in this case, jazz) are the norm? Easy — he made it up. It’s a risky move. Historical purists and Miles Davis biography junkies aren’t going to love it, but for the less historically inclined, the fiction is a pleasant departure from a genre that struggles with filling space between the music.
What emerges from this blend of fact and fiction is an idea of Davis — namely Cheadle’s idea of him. In that sense, the film is less about Davis as a person and more about Davis as a cultural icon. To Cheadle (and I think to many of his fans) it doesn’t matter what Davis did on any given day, but rather what he made and what that product meant to the millions of people who listened to and loved his music.
The exchange of plot points for deeper significance sounds wonderful, and in “Miles Ahead” it almost is. But unfortunately Cheadle doesn’t know how to stop his fantasy version of Davis from running wild. One of the film’s standout scenes — a gun-filled car chase — feels more like an outtake from Davis’s guest appearance on “Miami Vice” than a scene in a serious and artistic film about his life. The scene sucks the romance out of Cheadle’s impressionistic portrayal and leaves it feeling childish and absurd.
Narratively, the film follows a familiar strategy of throw-in-a-journalist-and-a-story-will-emerge. Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor, “The Force Awakens”) is a writer at Rolling Stone tasked with writing Davis’s “comeback story.” While his existence in the film — much like Jesse Eisenberg’s in “The End of the Tour” — is in part a vehicle through which to ask the questions Davis would never answer unprompted, it works. The two have chemistry — so much chemistry, in fact, that at times the film seems headed for buddy cop territory.
While “Miles Ahead” may not be the film that solidifies Cheadle as a master storyteller, it could be the one that solidifies him as a master behind the camera. With the help of editors John Axelrad and Kayla M. Emter, Cheadle edits the film to the beat of Davis’s fragmented music. Flashback’s are cut side by side with current-narrative progression in a rhythm that in any other film would feel jarring. But, when set to Davis’s music, it feels natural and reminds the audience why we’re all here: not because someone named Miles Davis got in a fight at Columbia Records one time, but rather because someone named Miles Davis made amazing music with enough power to inspire a filmmaker to dedicate ten years of his life to immortalizing him.
So maybe “Miles Ahead” is a purist’s nightmare, and maybe even for impressionist fans it dips too far into cartoon territory; but, love it or hate it, one has to acknowledge the love and passion that Cheadle eskews for his muse every moment he’s in front of the camera and every moment he’s behind it.