Movie Review: MILES AHEAD Cheadle takes on the jazz great in an uneven but inventive film that struggles at times to bring clarity to its idea of Davis but experiments intriguingly with past, present, fact and fiction.
NPR logo When Is A Biopic Not A Biopic? When Don Cheadle Meets Miles Davis

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When Is A Biopic Not A Biopic? When Don Cheadle Meets Miles Davis

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in Miles Ahead. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

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Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in Miles Ahead.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Don Cheadle has been playing Miles Davis for his entire career. To look back now on some of the actor's most exciting performances — as flashy porn star Buck Swope in Boogie Nights, velvet-slick con man Basher Tarr in the Ocean's trilogy, and rabble-rousing deejay Petey Greene in Talk to Me — is to recognize those same larger-than-life elements from the persona of the jazz legend and Cheadle's personal hero. Maybe all that was missing was that Jheri curl and that brilliantly weaponized trumpet.

In his feature directorial debut, Cheadle finally lets us in on the Miles in his mind. Named after Davis' 1957 album of the same name, but set during his six-year withdrawal from public life in the late 1970s, Miles Ahead is from the start portraying not the trumpeter's life story but rather his essence. Typically that's film-speak for excusing a biopic's inevitable factual inaccuracies. But what about when the biopic isn't even trying to be accurate, because its makers are motivated by something other than accuracy? In this case, it's the idea of hanging out in Davis' house, watching him navigate his pigsty while producing drugs and priceless memorabilia from every corner. Call it a life story, only funkified.

This also may be the first biopic to prominently feature a MacGuffin. The story concerns an unreleased recording of a Davis studio session that he is desperate to keep to himself, a tape that will be passed around between an unscrupulous journalist (Ewan McGregor) and an even less scrupulous manager (Michael Stuhlbarg, trying out handlebar-mustache ham). This tape rouses Davis from hermitdom and gets him out onto the street, brandishing a pistol and prompting car chases that Cheadle shoots in "NBC cop show" action pieces.

Cheadle's attempt to impose this thriller element onto an already suitably strange life story is the hardest pill to swallow, as it's not clear what new insights into Davis' character it's meant to bring. There are times, too, when the film is confused about the motivations of the Davis it has invented. Early in his recluse period, he calls in to a radio station during a tribute hour to request a song from his 1960 record Sketches of Spain, but later, when he finds the same record on the shelf of a young fan/supplier, he's annoyed: "Man, I've recorded, like, 15 albums since then." Is he disappearing into his legacy willingly, or has it imprisoned him? Or is it specifically the kid's youth and whiteness that leaves this titan feeling vulnerable? Whether it's McGregor's journalist asking the big questions or us, they don't seem to get answered.

Nevertheless, Miles Ahead makes for a fine complement to Born to be Blue, the similarly experimental and, at times, similarly sloppy Chet Baker sorta-biopic released just last week. Truly, this is a golden age for jazz films. In Blue, we watched Ethan Hawke's Baker revitalize his career onstage at the New York club Birdland; here, in a brutal (and factual) sequence, we see club headliner Davis beaten and arrested on the sidewalk after escorting a white woman outside.

Flashbacks like these, and others featuring Davis' passionate but abusive relationship with first wife Frances Taylor (a luminous Emayatzy Corinealdi), weave into the central narrative at odd angles. And Cheadle blessedly makes no attempt to slap on any sort of thematic catch-all. A life is what it is: bright, brilliant, full of missteps and contradictions and moments of sheer transcendent glory. We can try to take that mess of humanity and squeeze it into a tailored Hollywood red-carpet dress — or we can do what the jazz greats do and invent, invent, invent, all while riffing on the stuff we know we can't afford to lose.

Miles Ahead ends with a dizzying blurring of the line between fact, fiction, past and present. In character as Davis, we see Cheadle take the stage clad in a vest he could never have worn (branded with "#SocialMusic," his term for jazz). Then we get a good look at his new backing band: generations of jazz legends including Esperanza Spalding and still-kicking Davis compatriot Herbie Hancock, jamming on thoroughly modern melodies. Davis constantly reinvented his own style right up until his death. The fusion tunes the group plays help turn Miles Ahead into something much weirder and freer than a biopic: a pulsating act of cinematic resurrection. The dead are not dead, not yet.