Miles Davis was bored. By the early 1960s, he had recorded the definitive versions of nearly every jazz standard in the book. He burned with the desire to push the boundaries of the music. He formed a band that is now so famous it is simply called The Quintet. Together with Wayne Shorter (sax), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass) and a teenaged Tony Williams (drums), Davis spent from 1960 to 1965 recording some of the greatest music ever laid down on vinyl. (If you don’t own Miles Davis Live at the Plugged Nickel from that era, you should stop reading this and go buy it.) When The Quintet disbanded, Davis was arguably one of the most famous musicians in the world, but he wasn’t content. He embarked on a life-long quest for an ever-changing sound. He strove to be a musical chameleon, changing with the times, absorbing modern influences and melding them with the sounds in his head.
Then he lost his way for five years in the late-1970s and early-80s. Miles Ahead, the non-biopic, biopic from actor/director Don Cheadle, is set during that dormant period. The framing device for the film is the pursuit of a lost session tape that represents the only music with merit that Davis had produced for nearly five years. The entire incident is fictionalized and serves as a metaphor for Davis’ efforts to find his new sound and to find himself while lost in a sea of physical pain and drug use.
Although it’s a clever idea, the caper elements of the film are its biggest weakness. Watching Davis point his gun at record executives is supposed to bring the film a sense of danger. Instead, it feels like an effort to inject false drama into a film that doesn’t need it. Davis’ relationship with his first wife and his quest for musical perfection are more than enough to push the proceedings through its 100-minute runtime.
The film unfolds like one of the trumpeter’s solos from his early-80s period — staccato bursts of sound, some atonal, some full of piercing emotion. Davis once said it’s not the notes you play that matter, it’s the notes you don’t play that are important. Cheadle clearly learned that lesson and avoids the standard cradle-to-the-grave biopic format. Scenes from the present collide with moments from the past as one event bleeds into another. Some scenes along the way are clunky, but the film is never capsized by its missteps. If something isn’t working, wait a minute, and the action simply swerves in another direction. Miles Ahead is biopic as impressionism. It doesn’t try to provide the viewer with a historical look at Davis’ career. It wants the audience to know the man, to feel what it was like to be in his skin. And it succeeds in doing so.
Cheadle is the embodiment of Davis. With the gravelly voice and limp, the physical resemblance is remarkable, but he also captures the bluster, the anger that was always simmering just below the surface. Davis didn’t trust the white establishment in the music industry and was very vocal about that fact. No one was going to look out for Miles Davis except Miles Davis, and Cheadle’s performance uses that sense of self-preservation to flesh out the man behind the music. If the momentum of the Oscars So White movement rolls on through 2016, Academy members would be justified in honoring Cheadle’s performance with a Best Actor nomination. The Academy has a tendency to forget every film released before September in a given year. We’ll see if Miles Ahead can overcome that trend. Maybe a film about a rule-breaker can break all the rules come awards season.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.