When actor Don Cheadle was approached to portray Miles Davis, it transformed into the perfect project for his directorial debut, and developed into a labour of love centred around one of the pioneers of jazz music, or ‘social music’ as Davis would call it. Cheadle co-writes, stars in and directs Miles Ahead, a biopic of sorts that looks back on the life and career of the controversial, innovative musician. When Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) turns up at Davis’ door to discuss a comeback album, he receives a less than frosty reception. He perseveres and the forms an unlikely friendship with his interviewee, and helps him out when new material is snatched by smarmy producer Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg). Meanwhile, Davis reminisces about his muse Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and their passionate, but turbulent relationship.
It has been publicised that director Cheadle hates the word ‘biopic’ almost as much as Davis hated the word ‘jazz’, and in the deliberate avoidance of the narrative structure associated with biographical movies, there is a struggle to establish structure whatsoever. Instead of tackling the film like a character study, there are two strands that interweave rather chaotically around one another. It is part twisted love story, part drug frenzy. Despite the unfocussed tone, there are performances to enjoy especially that of Cheadle. He brings energy and charisma to the part, but I fear his commitment to acting lets his other duties slide a little. McGregor feels like a strange choice for the role of notepad chancer Brill but forms a rather fascinating on-screen partnership with Cheadle as they bicker and squabble over everything and anything.
‘Miles Ahead’ boasts a fantastic central performance that loses its way in a messy version of events. Cheadle’s ambition to oversee the traditional biopic elements for a more artistic affair is admirable, and at times it pays off, particularly with the visual harmony of the stylistic cinematography. The problem with the film lies in the fact that man behind the music still feels very much a man of mystery afterwards, and too many stones are left unturned. Davis famously once said ‘Don’t fear mistakes. There are none’. This may have been true for jazz music but the same can’t be said about cinema.