A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
“Miles Ahead” is a film of ugly, bold bravado. Images move in and out of focus, at times without reason. The camera often sits in unexpected places—down an alley near the dumpster, languidly careening from one person’s mouth to another during a conversation, holding onto the corner of a face. There are so many textures and sounds and colors to the film—sheened afros, silk the color of ocean water and crimson, supple dark brown skin, glimmering diamonds, blood marring the collar of a crisp tan shirt, unhinged laughter—it veers toward sensory overload. It’s this impressionistic flavor that gives the film its crackling, memorable energy. But the moment that got under my skin is perhaps the quietest one in the film. It’s the aftermath of a fight between Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) and his wife/muse, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). She wakes up in bed to find a pile of gifts lying next to her—fine furs, dresses, and glimmering jewels. Miles can’t (or won’t) see it when he comes behind her to place the diamond and ruby necklace around her neck but her face looks like a seam about to split. The jewels seem less beautiful when you realize they’re in memory of wounds Miles has inflicted. The look of pained yearning across Frances’ face communicates their marriage is doomed more than any moment prior.
“Miles Ahead” could have easily become a piece of treacly hagiography, more caught up in black cool rather than the suffering that underscores it. It’s to Don Cheadle’s credit—who not only stars as Miles but directed, produced, and co-wrote the film—that he doesn’t fall into the trap that far too many biopics do where the actor is so caught up worshiping the legend they’re playing that they can’t see them for the complicated, at times even vile, human beings they really are.
Cheadle chooses to eschew many expectations by zeroing in on Miles’ fallow period in the late 1970s and providing surprising flashbacks that jolt us through his past. When we meet Miles, he’s a ragged sketch of a man. He’s falling apart even though his bravado could fool you otherwise, at least for a moment. The framing device involves Miles interviewed by Dave (Ewan McGregor), a Rolling Stone reporter eager to find out what Miles has been up to during the years of his absence. Dave quickly gets swept up in the chaotic world of his subject, who just as quickly turns his discerning gaze on him as he does himself. The main plot involves a mysterious session tape that Miles’ record company is eager to get their hands on. The tape entices a slimy manager, Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), entwined in the proceedings, who tries to use it to boost the career of his incredibly talented, junkie client, Junior (Keith Stanfield). This plotline and Dave’s entire existence is pure fiction. None of this should work, but the mix of unexpected humor, genuine pathos, and bristling energy is enough to forgive the 1970s plot thread for its faults. Biopics work best when not focusing on the minutiae of fidelity but on the emotional truths of their subjects.
Cheadle’s performance is pure elegant vulgarity. He curses as if he is speaking poetry. He carries himself like a man who has lived a thousand lives. He cares less about Miles’ cool than he does about the tragedies he’s inflicted upon himself and others. The way he cares for the man is evident in his performance by the honesty that comes with each moment, whether it be Miles whipping out a gun in Columbia Records or asking Frances to marry him as two naked women lie in his bed in the next room. The performance echoes his work as Mouse in the neo-noir “Devil in a Blue Dress” but there’s more pathos and craft here. Cheadle keenly understands the darkness of Miles but doesn’t condescend. Instead he presents all his contradictions and guises—the addict, the sharply dressed genius, the madman, the lover, the unfaithful yet loving husband.