Riffing on the biopic form, Don Cheadle directs and performs episodes from the possible life of jazz icon Miles Davis with great panache.
Together with the unlikely sparring partner of Ewan McGregor’s Scottish-born Rolling Stone journalist (a fictitious figure, if ever there were one), Cheadle sparks an odyssey through the New York night to recapture a stolen master tape of Miles’ return to recording after five years of silence.
Some of what we see is true, notably the relationship with his first wife, the dancer Frances Taylor whose beautiful face is immortalised on the cover of the Someday My Prince Will Come album and used here as a visual refrain to haunt the drug-addicted loner in later life.
McGregor’s character David describes Miles as “jazz’s Howard Hughes” and the pair flit to Columbia records, drug dealers, shyster producers (Michael Stuhlbarg on fine oily form), parties and Miles’ own basement recording studio.
The film’s style is to flash back and forth, as if told by Miles himself – in the framing, 1979-set narrative, McGregor’s interview technique is a frustrated: “OK, you’re the artist: how would you tell the story?” and the film presents itself as the kind of many-styled palette of sounds and colours evident in Miles’ own continuously evolving oeuvre, from bebop, through to cool jazz, modal, post-bop and fusion, even into hip-hop.
Borrowing from the La Vie en Rose technique, one scene finds Miles trapped in a lift in 1979 yet opening up a panel, he steps, a sharp-suited young man, into 1950s jazz club and begins playing with his quintet.
In between, we also see recreations of the classic 1959 studio recordings, featuring Gil Evans and producer Teo Macero, as well as later mid- 1960s jam sessions downstairs with young Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. In one scene, Miles orders Shorter and the quintet to practise Nefertiti, while he goes upstairs and has a blazing row with Frances.
The viewer doesn’t get much help with time lines here, but the general idea is skilfully enough conveyed through different hairstyles, sunglasses and physical traits (voice, hip problems) without getting bogged down in jazz aficionado detail.
This conflatory style comes to a highly stylised and visually effective climax when Miles chases his lost tape to a boxing match and a gunfight, fist fight, jazz gig and Frances all converge in his addled mind.
I enjoyed Miles Ahead**** a lot. It’s a very fine jazz movie, an inventive, pacy biopic, and it was fun figuring out how it all fitted together, which session was which, which real life figure was who (Gil, Bill, Wayne, Teo, George etc) and what was myth and truth. I admire Cheadle’s clear passion for the jazz and the man while keeping the movie open, freewheeling, insane and funny for non-jazz heads.
In Cheadle’s wiry, cool performance it’s also clear Miles was an extraordinary, difficult man as well as a jazz pioneer and restlessly brilliant artist – one crazy motherfucker, too.
Photograph credit: Brian Douglas