Biopics generally suck. Authenticity is difficult when you're distilling a historical figure's real life into a two-hour movie with a conventional character arc and three-act structure of Hollywood. "Walk Hard's" scorched earth satire of screenwriting 101 checklist movies like "Ray" and "Walk The Line" was not only hilarious, it ripped these cliches apart at the seams. "Miles Ahead" is the best possible tribute to Miles Davis in that it refuses to be just another biopic. Davis bristled at his music being boxed in by easy labels, and Don Cheadle's film honors the life of one of music's great innovators through its honesty and ambition.
When Cheadle-as-Davis tells a reporter "If you're going to tell a story, man, come at it with some attitude. Don't get all corny with this shit," it's clear that the film isn't here for your jazz record nostalgia or to deliver a happy ending.
"Miles Ahead" is pretty clearly a labor of love for Don Cheadle, who not only starred as Davis but also directed, produced, and co-wrote this 140-minute session with the jazz legend. Cheadle plays Miles Davis as a chaotic force of nature, distant and unknowable behind black sunglasses until he explodes in anger or pulls a gun. Most of Cheadle's scenes with Ewan McGregor (playing fictional sidekick/scumbag Rolling Stone reporter Dave Brill) are a highly-entertaining-but-totally-fictional Shane Black-esque crime caper revolving around the theft of Davis' newest session recordings by a (again, fictional) shady Columbia exec.
That the events depicted in the frame story didn't actually happen aren't just beside the point—they are the point. "Miles Ahead" is a film philosophically committed to emotional honesty but disinterested in being the live action recitation of Miles' Wikipedia page.
Introspection is restrained as much as it can be in this kind of movie, centering on Davis' regrets over the dissolution of his marriage to his first wife, dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) as he struggles to rediscover his voice in the period before he reinvented himself as an avant garde electronic musician. This is post-"Miles In The Sky" but just before "In A Silent Way" Miles.
Corinealdi and Cheadle have incredibly chemistry together as on-screen spouses, which makes sequences depicting Davis' psychological and physical abuse of Taylor brutally authentic. As we watch Davis wear down Taylor into agreeing to come home from a prestigious international tour or callously commit infidelities behind her back, it's important that these actions aren't excused as "brief lapses in judgment" or the unwilling side effect of some childhood trauma. Davis is haunted by Taylor's face on the album cover for 1961's "Someday My Prince Will Come" throughout the film, with his past and present lives briefly merging extemporaneously in the film's most visually inventive sequence: As Miles' confrontation with a shady studio exec at a boxing match turns ugly, reality starts to slip away. A panicked crowd empties out of the auditorium and Miles briefly exchanges glances with his younger self, playing a solitary trumpet in the center of the ring.
That Davis is ultimately left with his loneliness and regret speaks louder than any melodramatic third act moment of faux-redemption could.
"Miles Ahead" is now playing at the Charles Theatre.