Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, 2015)
In his directorial debut, actor Don Cheadle (Traitor) mostly avoids the clichés of the biographical picture and takes genuine creative risks, choosing to focus on a particular moment in time rather than an entire lifespan. His subject? Jazz musician Miles Davis (1926-1991). Cheadle’s approach leads to something much more impressionistic and elliptical than your standard-issue Hollywood biopic; it’s an improvisatory riff that would no doubt make Davis proud. Flashing back and forth between different eras of Davis’s life – yet grounded in the late 1970s, when Davis was going through a particularly bad cocaine-fueled depression – Cheadle keeps us as disoriented as Davis most likely was at that time. He also uses and blends the conventions of other genres – the action thriller, buddy movie and gangster drama – to lend Miles Ahead a texture and feel uniquely its own.
Cheadle, himself, plays Davis, and is riveting in the role. When we first meet our hero, he is deep into booze and drugs at the end of a self-imposed exile that began in the mid-1970s. Ewan McGregor (The Impossible) – a completely fictional free-lance journalist from Rolling Stone – is interviewing him, and just as we settle into a montage of images on a vibrating television screen, we smash-cut back to a car chase and gunfire. And so the film goes, jumping around in a style that initially confuses but eventually brings all the disparate elements together at the end to show us, warts and all, what made Davis both great and awful. Human beings are complex, and a monster can still be a genius. This is a movie to be watched by those who love both movies and music.
If the film has one major weakness, it is that addition of fiction to the proceedings (which Cheadle says he did because he couldn’t get financial backing without a white co-star). McGregor’s character becomes a significant part of the plot, beyond that opening interview. We tune into biopics because they purport to show us the real man/woman behind the myth. Yet how much truth can really survive a compressed version of any human being’s life? Perhaps it is not the worst sin in the world to take overt liberties, if the underlying narrative arc still reveals something honest about that person’s trajectory. Still, while I enjoyed the energy and panache with which Cheadle tells his story, his approach may not be for all. However, even if you cannot abide fiction in your docudrama, I think you’ll still have to admire Cheadle’s command of craft. If nothing else, Miles Ahead reveals the birth of a true director.