Clearly a labour of love for director Don Cheadle, Miles Ahead (2016) paints a portrait in miniature but still manages to capture the indomitable spirit of legendary jazz artist Miles Davis. Cheadle’s own portrayal of a man he feels feted to play is remarkably controlled, capturing – through different time periods – both the suave confidence of an artist at his peak and the vulnerabilities and insecurities that ultimately savaged his relationship with love of his life Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi).
Cheadle’s treatment of Davis’s legacy, achieved in consultation with many of the jazzman’s relatives and co-written with Steven Baigelman, has been brilliantly conceived. Rather than settle on a traditional biopic with all its attendant creative traps and pitfalls, Cheadle has gone for an uncompromising, at times almost avant-garde approach in which a mostly fictional central scenario from 1980 is surrounded by non-linear vignettes from Davis’s past. At this point in time he’s a washed-out, haunted figure, holed up in a New York apartment, having gone to ground whilst leaving little clues behind for his devotees in their search for the cause of his five year long creative drought.
Using the fictional creation of a relentless journalist (Ewan McGregor’s Dave Brill) attempting to get close to his subject, the film dabbles with elements of a crime thriller. A series of flashy, energetic scenes are interwoven into the narrative as a sought after new recording by Davis becomes a bone of contention between him, his studio and others all trying to get their hands on it for profit. Guns are fired, a car chase ensues, but through it all Davis remains calculatingly cool and threatening.
Slowly the flashbacks bleed into the present, both informing and reshaping our opinion of Davis the man and artist after this intriguing creative standstill. Like so many creative types he’s a prickly, difficult character but admirably upfront and candidly blunt. Cheadle’s exemplarily attuned performance, in which he gets the vocal and physical traits of the man down pat, is simply outstanding.
Somehow the swirling narrative of Miles Ahead coheres like a bruised, dreamy jazz riff. The essence of Davis is captured without betraying glimpses of his genius but, conversely, not with so much reverence that the darker underlying streaks of his nature are camouflaged. In Cheadle’s more than capable hands, the rawness of Davis’s attitudes to authority, his demeanour and his ability to polarise is uncompromised.
Despite his self-destructive tendencies – another convenient cliché that’s given fresh and tender sidebars to make it feel as though conflicting instincts are being given interesting perspective – Davis is endearingly flawed. His relationship with Frances is tender and rich with both delicate and indelicate nuances. Cheadle’s greatest feat, for me, is being able to sift through the wealth of material at his disposal and, with great economy, reduce the couple’s love to its qualifying essence in the way it is shaped, supported and, finally, irrevocably harmed by Davis.