“When you’re creating your own shit, man . . . even the sky ain’t the limit.” –Miles Davis, supposedly
After watching Miles Ahead in its entirety it’s difficult to tell if the above quote, which appears on an opening title card, was actually something Miles Davis said or if it’s something in the spirit of what Miles Davis would say. Either way, first-time filmmaker, longtime badass Don Cheadle holds onto the sentiment of that quote like a mission statement or a war cry. Miles Ahead is dressed up like a Miles Davis biopic, but functions much more like an expressionistic gangster film, mirroring the way Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song falls just on the art film side of blaxploitation. This Don Cheadle passion project (starring, written, and directed by Cheadle himself) pursues an over the top dedication to creative license with his subject’s life story that makes for a disjointed, but controlled variation on biopic conventions and, wouldn’t you know it, the result feels a little like jazz. I could see how someone could find Cheadle’s many eccentric decisions silly, but I found myself impressed by his cavalier ambition. In the end I believe your enjoyment of Miles Ahead boils down to whether or not you think its choices & attitude are, for lack of a better word, cool. Personally, I was buying all of the cool cat absurdism Cheadle was selling with very few reservations.
Instead of following the traditional cradle-to-grave narrative of biopic tedium, Miles Ahead focuses on two distinct points in its jazz legend’s career. In one storyline he’s the famous jazz world equivalent of a rockstar, struggling with typical music giant clichés you’d see ripped to shreds in spoofs like Walk Hard & Popstar: intense recording sessions, pressure to succeed, hedonistic lovemaking with strangers, trouble with a too-understanding spouse, etc. This lens is mostly a glimpse into the tame, by the numbers biopic Miles Ahead could’ve been. The other fixed temporal point is a highly fictionalized down period where Davis is a strung out, Howard Hughes style loner, except trading in germaphobia for depressive squalor. In this 1970s spiritual low point he teams up with a Rolling Stone reporter charged with writing his supposed comeback story to go on a guns & coke-fueled caper to maintain control of his latest unreleased recordings in the face of the record company execs & thugs desperate to rip him off (by satisfying his contract), including an eternally underutilized Michael Stuhlbarg among their ranks. This bifurcated structure recalls the genre subversion of last year’s Love & Mercy, except that Cheadle chooses not to keep his two halves separate. The haze of memory & drug fueled hallucination allow the walls of reality to break down and the two timelines bleed together, mixing the action thriller absurdism & glory days revisitation into a highly explosive cocktail that might be more interesting than essential, but is certainly much more entertaining that it would’ve been if Cheadle played the material straight.
A lot of viewers have been turned off by Miles Ahead’s gleeful tampering with its subject’s life story (with curmudgeony critic Rex Reed being the biggest whiner/detractor out there, which is usually an automatic sign of greatness), but I think the film’s gambles pay off just fine as soon as you separate the real life Miles Davis from the fictional, gun-wielding drug addict Cheadle brings to the screen. This is not a biographical portrait so much as an attempt to capture Davis’s energetic spirit in the weirdly cool & inherently tragic shape of an action cinema anti-hero. Where I find this experiment brilliant is in Cheadle’s willingness to trade in one genre’s flat, uninteresting, trope-laden formula for the much more exciting, much trashier energy of an entirely different kind of picture, one audiences usually have a much easier time focusing on. The writer-director-star has even admitted that he constructed Ewan McGregor’s Rolling Stone writer character merely because he needed a white face onscreen to sell more tickets & secure better funding, which is obviously fucked, but incredibly practical. Cheadle obviously holds tremendous adoration for Davis and wanted his film, which he believes captures the artist’s spirit, to reach the widest audience possible, presumably to spread that adoration.
Ultimately, though the results in Miles Ahead are too strange for wide commercial appeal, mirroring too many eccentric energies from Davis’s work, whether funk or jazz or subculture cool, for any hopes of runaway commercial success. The movie’s similarly unlikely to win over a large chunk of the art film crowd either, since they can be less kind to experimental, but messy debuts from actors-turned-directors, as we saw with Ryan Gosling’s better-than-its-reputation Lost River last year. I don’t want to suggest that Miles Ahead is 100% successful in capturing spirit instead of truth or bringing jazz’s idiosyncrasies to cinematic life. I do think, however, that it’s a surprisingly fun & playful marriage of fine art technique with trash genre thrills, which is more or less my favorite kind of movie magic formula. The only time Don Cheadle’s gambles don’t particularly work for me is in a closing concert sequence that bleeds into the end credits. I’m willing to overlook that discomfort, though, and mileage may vary there since, truth be told, I don’t really like jazz (sorry y’all). I mostly showed up for Miles Ahead’s dangerous, iconoclastic experiments with action-packed absurdism. Cheadle’s debut did not disappoint there. I hope he gets more chances to step behind the camera & deliver more work this confidently strange in the future, despite his first film’s muted reception.