Title: Miles Ahead
Director: Don Cheadle
Major Players: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi
Out Of Five: 3.5
The soundtrack to my post-screening coffee was a jazz trumpet – not that Miles Davis would have had any truck with the word. According to Don Cheadle’s labour of love bio-pic, it’s made up: what he played was social music. But, in whatever context, the man and his music still live on.
If you’re not familiar with that music, you could be forgiven for thinking that, as titles go, Miles Ahead is on the trite side. But it turns out to be the title of one of his albums and a piece of music in its own right, which features on the soundtrack. Along with many others. Like an awful lot of other things about the film, there’s more to the title than you might think.
The story, such as it is, centres on a handful of years in the ’70s when Davis completely disappeared from public view. With a string of albums behind him, and legions of fans clamouring for more, he hit a creative block and there was little he could do, other than wait until the inspiration returned. Inevitably his new reclusive lifestyle raised questions, hence the arrival of Rolling Stone journalist Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) on his doorstep to uncover the story. And the possibility of an exclusive interview is pushed to one site in favour of becoming embroiled in Davis’ manic attempts to recover a stolen music tape from his record company.
This is the string that loosely holds the film together: with Davis as the central character, you wouldn’t expect anything too structured. It ricochets backwards and forwards in time as he digs deep into his past. Some of the connections are smart and inventive, like opening a lift door which takes him onto the stage 20 years ago at the start of his career. It’s a bio-pic, yes, but more like magical mystery tour and, given the fictional content, perhaps a bit more mystery than magic. Once you’re used to the to-ing and fro-ing, you just have to go along with some scenes. They may not make immediate sense, but they will, because director Cheadle makes sure that all the ends are neatly tied up.
Davis is haunted by one memory in particular: his wife Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi). In reality, she was the first of three and their marriage lasted ten years. We never see the others. As far as the film is concerned, she was his muse and inspiration and her departure triggers his creative block. A look at Davis’ real story shows something different and potentially more complex, but Cheadle shows considerable skill in the way his mixes fact with artistic license.
The film’s most quotable line is also the one that sums it up. “If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude,” Davis tells Braden. It’s what Cheadle the director has set out to do and, with its pace, imagination and element of mystery , he’s largely succeeded. As an actor, he’s never been better. He’s got the rasping voice, almost a hoarse whisper, an ill-disguised contempt for just about everybody else and an obsession with music. It’s a performance that dominates the film and the only other one that comes close to him is Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances, who gives up her career as a dancer for him but, ultimately, can’t cope with his erratic and sometimes violent behavior.
It’s a film made with love and respect and, most definitely, attitude. It may not always hit the right note every single time – and Davis probably wouldn’t have wanted it to! – but it does work as a reflection of the chaos that was his life and his mind. And lovers of his music can simply wallow.
Miles Ahead is in cinemas now and was reviewed on Talking Pictures on 21 April