by Tim Gordon
One of the most extraordinarily talented and influential musicians to ever pick up a horn, Miles Davis, finally gets the big-screen treatment in Don Cheadle’s dazzling directorial debut, Miles Ahead.
Over ten year’s in the making, Cheadle’s true labor of love was inspired by a comment he heard the iconic trumpeter say during his speech during his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Davis remarked that when his life was made into a movie “that Don Cheadle will play me.” Years later, Cheadle was approached about playing the jazz legend and after giving it some consideration, decided that if he didn’t step up and make this project happen, it would never come to fruition.
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Luckily, Cheadle followed through on this story that focuses on the life of Davis (Cheadle) during his five-year hiatus from his first love, ‘social music,’ during the mid-to-late 1970s. Instead of a standard musical biopic, Cheadle opts to use a similar story structure that writer/director Ava DuVernay employed in bringing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the screen in Selma which focused on a slice of his life, instead of spotlighting the entirety.
Cheadle’s screenplay, co-written by Steven Baigelman, spans a 25-year period where Davis was at his most prolific professionally, but his personal life was in shambles. As Davis is caught in the throes of his drug addiction and dissatisfaction with his label over an advance for undelivered master recordings, he receives a jolt of inspiration from a music writer, Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) who wants to shadow the legend and pen his comeback story.
After a rocky initial encounter, Davis slowly takes Brill into his confidence and soon the embattled journalist learns “truth is stranger than fiction” when you are rolling with the architect of “The Birth of the Cool.” While Davis is battling his demons in the present tense, he still pines for the love of his first wife, the talented dancer, Francis Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Cheadle seamlessly blends both stories, with expert editing by John Axelrad, that is as effective as a sultry Davis solo.
Despite the fact that Cheadle clearly reveres Davis, to his credit, he didn’t create a sanitized version of the superstar. He shows not just Davis’ extreme highlights but his warts and insecurities as living day-to-day as the jazz legend was just as exhausting both on and off the stage. Cheadle also captures Davis dealing with envious law enforcement officials, his erratic and explosive bouts of domestic abuse with Taylor, as well as his run-in with a dishonest music promoter (Michael Stuhlbarg), who attempts to steal his music.
Unlike John Ridley’s Jimi: All By My Side, the Davis family fully cooperated and gave this project their blessing providing Cheadle with access to Davis’ music, which is featured prominently throughout the film. While Cheadle could never play the icon’s music, he captures the essence of Davis’ cool, especially in several scenes when he mimics Davis’ smooth on-stage persona in concert. Providing the score is a member of Davis’ ‘Second Great Quintet, Herbie Hancock, whose atmospheric score perfectly accompanies Cheadle’s winning screenplay.
Cheadle also perfectly balances Davis’ story, not only showing his personal challenges but his genius as a musician as well as his proficiency in the studio as he provides expert instruction to his longtime collaborator, Gil Evans (Jeffrey Grover). It also doesn’t hurt that audiences are treated to songs from landmark Davis albums, including “Kind of Blue,” “Sketches of Spain” and “Tutu.” While Cheadle serves as the soul of the story, he wisely surrounded himself with a group of accomplished supporting actors, who each have their moments to shine and are very solid interpreting Cheadle’s material including McGregor, Corinealdi, Stuhlbarg and Keith Stanfield.
Working with a minuscule budget and not much room for error or extras, Cheadle apparently learned a great deal watching many of the directors that he was fortunate to work with over his almost thirty-year career. While Miles Ahead doesn’t give us the whole picture of this iconic trumpeter, it is a loving tribute to one of the most respected musicians in jazz history. Hopefully, it can also serve as a catalyst that helps bring contemporary audiences closer to understanding the tortured genius that made Davis legendary.