Like the unruly spawn of The End of the Tour and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Miles Ahead is a fictionalized biography of a real artist that pairs its subject with a journalist turned sidekick of sorts. Unlike The End of the Tour’s logorrheic David Foster Wallace, Miles Ahead’s Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) is tight-lipped and enigmatic, too cool to ever spill his guts—except maybe literally, in one of the comically inept gunfights he keeps getting into. Instead of talking to Rolling Stone freelancer Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), he makes him his wingman on a series of quixotic quests, pursuing a tape of the only music he’s recorded during a long fallow period; the $20,000 he says his thuggish producer, Harper (Michael Stuhlbarg), owes him; and the mounds of cocaine that fuel his erratic, often violent, possibly paranoid behavior.
Cheadle, who directed and co-wrote the film, says he didn’t want to make a standard biopic, and he succeeds in sidestepping the facile pop psychologizing and lachrymose sentimentality of films like Ray and Walk the Line, not to mention their compulsion for locating the source of an artist’s unhappiness and talent in some childhood trauma. But he fails to provide any real insight into Davis’s thoughts or feelings.
It’s never clear whether Harper really owes Davis money, since the musician is shown to have had periods of paranoia in Miles Ahead’s frequent flashbacks to a happier time, when his musical career and his romance with his first wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), were both in bloom. The question Brill raises at the start, which is echoed by nearly everyone else Davis encounters—why has he been silent for the past five years?—is never answered, and no clue is offered as to why someone who was surrounded by people in his prime has become such a recluse, apparently satisfied to pad about his cluttered apartment alone until Brill shows up.
The interests and influences that drove Davis’s evolution as a musician are also left mostly unexplored, as are his thoughts about his own work. At one point, he says that he doesn’t play jazz, but “social music.” Later he appears in a shirt emblazoned with that same intriguing phrase, but it remains unclear what he means by it, or why he doesn’t consider what he did, especially in the early part of his career, to fall under the rubric of jazz.
But Miles Ahead happily revels in Davis’s music, as in a lovely final sequence in which the actual members of his second great quartet recreate a song they played together in concert. The songs the film samples cover a wide range of Davis’s constantly evolving styles, and a scene in which he works with other musicians and a conductor in his basement studio on one of the songs from his 1960 album Sketches of Spain conveys the precision and assurance with which Davis mapped out his complex compositions.
Cheadle, whose compact, wiry frame is a good match for Davis’s, gives a brilliant physical performance, nailing the musician’s raspy whisper of a voice, his imperious stare, and the rocking walk he adopted to favor an injured hip. But in the end, looking the part isn’t enough. Less a character study than an impressionistic portrait of a troubled artist’s internal chaos, Miles Ahead supplies just enough Davis to leave us jonesing for more.