Don Cheadle has been talking about making a Miles Davis biopic for at least 10 years. When I saw it in the Sundance Film Festival program, I was surprised he'd ended up making it. I hadn't heard it went into production, let alone was finished, but seeing it felt like the culmination of the decade or more of his passion.
Cheadle directs and stars as Davis. The film begins with Davis being pressured to stage a comeback by Columbia Records. He doesn't feel he ever went away, but he's holding his recording session hostage until they pay him. Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), a freelance reporter, tries to get the story and ends up enlisted in a caper with Davis over the tape of the session.
This story intercuts with Davis's time with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), the love of his life but with whom he clearly blew it. In fact, the film literally breaks a wall into the past as scenes transition back and forth. It's a visceral way to bridge two sections of Davis's life and make us feel connected, like we're not asking about other times in his life. These are the focus and it's clear why.
Miles Ahead gives us examples of Davis's bravado so it never has to tell us how badass he was. Cheadle, who co-wrote the script, knows that showing is better than telling, and a few clever instances, such as Davis writing his phone number on money, tell us more than exposition would. Even allowing Davis to be abrasive and unlikeable gives us a picture of an uncompromising artist.
There is a lot of jazz in the score but not as much of Davis playing music on screen. When they do cut to Cheadle on the trumpet or piano, it looks like he really learned to play. The film does not lack for music, but the focus is on the music business and turbulent life of an artist.
The film touches on historical and social issues. Davis is harassed by racist cops outside his own performance. Just seeing the evolving looks of Davis through the years is telling and Cheadle captures his voice. Corinealdi is heartbreakingly effective. I was no jazz aficionado going into Miles Ahead, and now I know that Davis would hate me for calling it jazz, but I found the film more informative than had it been a standard biopic about the rise and fall and rebirth of artist.