Film Review: Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle’s jazz biopic is a mess but it comes with insight and flashes of brilliance too

I saw Miles Ahead on its opening weekend in the UK, in a rundown Odeon in central London. I’d booked tickets but I needn’t have bothered. It was me, two middle-aged men with ponytails and Forbidden Planet carrier bags, and seven to ten other people – fellow jazz nerds and their hostages for the evening. We could have had a row each.

That was over a fortnight ago, but it’s taken me until now to figure out what on earth I should say about Don Cheadle’s controversial biopic – which probably tells you everything you need to know. Miles Ahead is a bewildering, frustrating, mess of a film – a questionable picture with flashes of brilliance or a brilliant and boldly creative one with near-fatal flaws, I still haven’t made up my mind.

Put simply, the problem is car chases and Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), a Rolling Stone reporter who pitches up at the trumpeter’s Upper West Side apartment looking for a scoop. It’s the late 1970s and, true to life, Miles is in the middle of a period of drug- and alcohol-abetted isolation, during which he hardly played a note. Braden wants to write his comeback story and ends up riding shotgun as the trumpeter careers around New York with a pistol in his waistband on the tail of an unscrupulous Columbia record executive (Michael Stuhlbarg, complete with lurid paisley tie, seedy mustache, aviator sunglasses and permanent sneer) and a stolen session tape – Davis’ first recording in years.

Several reviewers have complained about this plot line on the grounds that it’s fictitious, but that doesn’t bother me. Miles Ahead is as much a work of historical fiction as it is a biopic and Cheadle should be free to improvise around the facts. What bothers me is that it’s tedious and daft, an irritating story made infinitely worse by Braden who is both whiney and catastrophically bland – a floppy-haired sponge who sucks the enjoyment out of every scene.

It’s a shame because there’s so much to love about the rest of the film. Cheadle’s passion for this project radiates from the screen and his portrayal of Miles is sublime. Everything from his raspy, wrung-out voice, to his swagger and his mannerisms – the way he holds himself, the way he sits with his trumpet and the way he strokes his thumb across the fingers of his free hand as he speaks – is bang on.

The actor/director even took trumpet lessons in preparation for the role and allegedly learnt a few of Miles’ solos. His playing does look convincing – certainly more so than that of his trumpet-playing rival in the film, the otherwise excellent Junior (Keith Stanfield), a shuffling junkie with a hangdog expression in whom Miles sees his younger self. In one scene – the only real clanger I spotted – Junior is tearing it up in a club, playing open and without a mic, yet the sound we hear is Keyon Harrold, the trumpeter on Robert Glasper’s snarling jazz-rock soundtrack, giving his wah-wah pedal a work out.

But enough trumpet geekery. Back to the positives. Braden’s involvement aside, the script is a joy and Cheadle has some wonderful lines to work with – vague utterances and evasive answers that hang in the air like cigar smoke – as well as pithy one-liners and dryly humorous put downs:

“You studied piano too, huh?”

“Nah. Just woke up black and knew how to play.”

Extended quotes from real life interviews with Davis have been woven into the script, including reflections on his early days in New York, getting shown up on the bandstand by Dizzy and Bird and wanting to “quit every night”. We hear his thoughts on music, style and attitude, along with immortal lines: “When you’re creating your own shit, man, even the sky ain’t the limit” and “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself”.

Statements like these run deeper than the dialogue, however. So many different aspects of the film seem to have been shaped by Miles’ personality, his music and his opinions. It’s as if the whole thing was made in his image.

Miles Ahead is arty and relentlessly stylish. There’s a hazy softness to the cinematography that could be the visual expression of Miles’ trumpet sound, and if I were feeling particularly indulgent I’d say his music was there in the rambling subplot too. Davis and his second great quintet pretty much invented the use of ‘metric modulation’ (seamlessly switching between related signatures) in jazz and it seems fitting that Miles Ahead should play fast and loose with time, jumping around by way of extended flashbacks to scenes from the ‘50s and ‘60s, which merge and overlap with the ‘70s present.

The effect is trippy, disorientating and delirious – like spending 90 minutes careering around the inside of Miles’ head. It’s almost too much, but so many great things come of it, on balance it feels worth it. Dipping in and out of different time periods means we get to enjoy the contrast between clean-cut, sharp-suited ‘50s Miles and washed-up jazz rock Miles, who favours snakeskin, sequins and wife-beater vests.

It means we get to hear a greater variety of Davis’ music aswell and to watch legendary sessions, like Miles recording Porgy and Bess with Gil Evans and Teo Macero and playing over “Gone” – for my money one of the greatest trumpet solos of all time.

Throughout the film, the attention to detail is borderline-obsessive. The interiors of jazz clubs and studios have been lovingly recreated from photographs and there are innumerable “Easter eggs” to watch out for – little touches, like the photograph of Lester Young, a major influence on Davis, on the wall of the trumpeter’s basement lair/coke den/home recording studio.

The fluidity of the time encourages Cheadle to stretch out as a director too and he’s worked-in some enjoyable, arthouse flourishes – scenes of infidelity seen through a scatter of polaroid pictures; a flashback triggered by Miles pushing the wall of an elevator and a recurring boxing motif (boxing was one of Davis’ passions).

Best of all, it means we get a nuanced and richly detailed portrait of Miles himself and an in-depth exploration of his psyche. We see his prickly, sharp-tongued, depressive side as he mopes about his dishevelled apartment haranguing radio DJs for playing the wrong tracks from his back catalogue and we see him blood-spattered and defiant after his altercation with a racist cop (a real life incident and one of the most powerful moments in the film).

We get the suave, swaggering self-confident Davis, but Cheadle also shows us the vulnerability behind that swagger and when it comes to his relationship with Frances Taylor, his first wife (magnificently played by Emayatzy Corinealdi), the camera doesn’t flinch. It’s clear that Davis adores Frances, her image on the album cover of Someday My Prince Will Come haunts him throughout the film, but he’s also intimidated by her independence and strength of character and we watch him become increasingly possessive, paranoid and violent as the story plays out.

Cheadle’s masterstroke though is the way that he shows Miles’ life intruding directly on his art. By weaving classic recordings in amongst the drama, he forces you to see them in context and to appreciate that the man and his music are inseparable. Particularly in the later stages of the film, he imbues the mood of Miles’ solos and the phrases that he plays with so much meaning it made me think about them in a completely different way. Maybe what I’d always assumed to be purely artistic decisions weren’t purely artistic at all. Maybe that is the sound of genuine anger and frustration cut into the wax. Perhaps that pause as Miles is soloing over “Nefertiti” isn’t just a pause, but the trumpeter taking a moment to compose himself as a fight with Frances flickers across his field of vision in a blur of splintered wood and broken china.

Flashes of genuine insight like that make it doubly frustrating that Braden and all the gun-toting, gonzo-gangster nonsense exists. The subplot and the true to life material – the racism, the romance and the armchair psychology – is so much more interesting and it could easily have carried the film on its own. Instead we’re left with this bizarre, arthouse-action hybrid – a picture that’s half commercial, half challenging to the point of alienating.

Cheadle has given endless interviews about Miles Ahead and his explanations of the McGregor plotline have been almost as various. He wanted to create, to improvise like Miles did and to make a film that the trumpeter would have wanted to star in. The screenplay is littered with further justifications for his approach: “Be wrong strong otherwise lay the fuck out”; “If you’re going to tell a story, come with some attitude” and “You’re the artist, Miles. How would you say it?”

Yet Cheadle has also talked about needing a big name European actor like McGregor to convince Hollywood backers of the film’s viability – and presumably to ensure that it wouldn’t be showing to half empty Odeon cinemas, populated by jaded critics, jazz nerds and their hostages for the evening. Some of his comments sound like attempts to distance himself from Braden and the session tape story altogether – to make it seem like an imposition by the money men. It’s hard to say what Miles would have thought of Miles Ahead, but he certainly wouldn’t have stood for that.

– Thomas Rees