You don’t have to know much about Miles Davis to know Miles Ahead is a lot of hokum. Even if the plot about Davis hunting down a rare recording he’d made before it can fall into the hands of evil Columbia Records execs sounds plausible, it takes only a few scenes for you to realize you’ve stepped into a kind of jazz fantasia, as if a Davis biopic had been hijacked by Quentin Tarantino and turned into a ‘70s Blaxploitation flick, suitable for drive-ins and midnight shows.
Hokum, of course, isn’t always a bad thing. And when it’s pulled off with the bravado shown by director and star Don Cheadle, can you really complain? As a biography, it stinks. But as a rip-roaring night at the movies, it’s not bad. That it weaves some actual events from Davis’ life with scenes that seem lifted from a Fred Williamson movie is probably easier to digest if you’ve read some James Ellroy, a writer known for taking dead personalities and using them in his novels, and teaching us that the dead can’t sue for slander. The problem is that Cheadle wrote this movie with five or six other people, and we can practically see the fingerprints all over it. Maybe one wanted it to be a buddy picture, another wanted a serious look at an important cultural figure, another wanted it to feel like Shaft. The result is weird. Imagine Raging Bull if, in the middle of it, La Motta and Sugar Ray decided to team up and take on the Mafia, and you get the vibe of this one.
What Cheadle gives us is a sort of “super biography,” the DC comics edition of Davis’ life, where he’s not just a black man suffering the indignities of racial subjugation and police brutality, but actually becomes a sort of kick-ass version of Davis, an actual gun-toting avenger who isn’t going to take it anymore, and doesn’t care who gets hurt. For a while, I was content to go on this crazy ride with Cheadle. Energy counts for something, and Cheadle certainly comes out swinging. That Cheadle’s first directorial feature is such a dynamic piece shouldn’t surprise us, since he’s worked with some of the top directors in the business and is, obviously, a smart and talented man. With cinematographer Roberto Schaefer and the design duo of Hannah Beachler and Helen Britten, Cheadle creates a beautiful movie to look at, switching from the 1960s to the ‘70s as it does, with hairpin editing by John Axelrod and Kayla Emter, explosive color, and, of course, the music of Miles Davis to power the thing along. The 1960s scenes have the style and panache of Verve album covers; the ‘70s scenes feel like every shag rug and cocaine party you ever imagined while reading an issue of ‘Down Beat.’
Cheadle plays Davis as a shambling, mumbling, misanthrope locked away in a self-imposed exile. He’s wired on cocaine, limping from a degenerating hip, and lamenting the wife who left him years earlier. His real gripe is with Columbia records because the executives want more product, while he’s convinced he has nothing left to say. When a reporter (played by Ewan McGregor) shows up at his home, Davis responds by punching the poor guy in the face. A few scenes later, Davis is teaching the reporter how to throw a punch. Davis, you see, is a boxing fan, and has a heavy bag set up in his recording studio; while strangers are partying in his living room, he teaches the reporter how to throw a punch. Boxing imagery pops up throughout the movie – Cheadle must not realize it’s a worn out metaphor by now – culminating in an improbable showdown between the record executives and Davis at, of all places, a boxing arena. The Columbia suits, looking and acting like heels from Scarface, are sitting ringside when Davis storms in, firing his gun, demanding justice, demanding his tape. Then Cheadle goes surreal on us, and instead of boxers in the ring, we see Davis, much younger, playing his horn in the ring. This cornball shit might dazzle the uninitiated, but more seasoned filmgoers will see it for the rookie directing stunt that it is. By then, the movie’s high-flying charm has been played out, and we’ve been numbed by gunplay and car chases.
Another numbing effect is, strangely, Cheadle himself. He talks in a raspy voice and shuffles around like Fred Sanford, but after a while he seems less like Davis and more like someone dressed as Davis for a costume party. He wears the oversized glasses and the frizzed out hair, but his basset hound features don’t quite work for the angry Davis of legend; it’s as if Shaquille O’Neal were playing Jim Brown. And Cheadle can’t stop giving himself anguished close-ups, his eyes dampening as he recalls the woman he done wrong. Also, his relationship with McGregor is too pat and predictable. McGregor is in the clichéd role of the white guy who will be smartened up by the black star of the movie, and though he uses his perky personality to full effect, he can’t lift himself out of a nothing part. It’s like watching Owen Wilson with a Scottish accent.
Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances, Davis’ long suffering first wife, fares a bit better. She’s slinky and sultry, and pulls off the prerequisite scene where she yells at Davis for sleeping around with other women. But as written, she’s the same angry wife we’ve seen in hundreds of movies. The other characters around Davis are made of even thinner cardboard. Davis is the noble, if drug-addled artist; everyone else is a villain or a leech, out to take advantage of him. They exist solely so Davis can hiss at them and threaten to cut their eyes out.
The movie loves music, though, and it thunders from the screen like a locomotive. Cheadle handles the music scenes well, and appears to know his way around a trumpet. The band scenes look authentic, as we see Davis rehearsing and recording what would become ‘Sketches of Spain.’ The denouement, though, where Davis chats with a young trumpet player and decides to make a comeback, feels as tacked on as a clip-on tie. But keep looking at the scenery and digging the sounds, and you might not notice the movie’s cheap lining.
I left the theater feeling disappointed. The feature had been amusing, and it was obviously a labor of love from Cheadle. Still, I felt it was all sound and fury and not much else. But when describing it to a friend of mine the next day, I told him the movie was well-done, and that he might enjoy it. I was surprised at myself. Then I remembered something Davis said in the movie about being a Gemini. “It’s like I’m two things at once,” he says. Miles Ahead might also be a Gemini, in that it’s two movies at once, one good, one not so good.