Miles Davis is the jazz superstar. It’s remarkable that there’s never been a biopic before. But wait – this very definitely isn’t a biopic. Director and lead Don Cheadle has been very clear about that from the start. Anyone coming to this film and expecting a cool-fest of decorative advertising images with A Kind of Blue soundtrack will be very disappointed.
Miles Ahead ploughs a very different furrow. It’s said that ten years ago Miles’ nephew Vince Wilburn told Don Cheadle that only he could play Davis in any film of his life, and now – thanks to crowdfunding through Indiegogo – it’s happened. Cheadle has said I want to tell a story that Miles himself would have wanted to see, something hip, cool, alive and AHEAD.
So – does the film deliver? In some ways, yes it does. This is Cheadle’s directorial debut and it’s a visually arresting one. He’s taken what Ian Carr in his excellent biography calls ‘the Silent Years’, when Davis was holed up in his Queens apartment unable to play. When Cheadle flashes back to earlier periods (for example, the recording of Sketches of Spain with Gil Evans or Miles’ fascination with boxing and black world champion Jack Johnson) we’re gripped by the authenticity. Cheadle creates a completely believable Miles – angry, frustrated, washed up and ready to quit music.
And the music! There’s no reliance on hackneyed ersatz coolness: instead Cheadle confidently lets the film buzz with the best of Davis’ music from the 1970s and 1980s. We get to hear Back Seat Betty, Go Ahead, John (which turns out to be perfect car chase music) and Prelude from Agharta. This is adventurous stuff, and as a result the film throbs with a visceral tension that’s delivered by the pacey direction and this powerful score.
So what’s wrong? Cheadle has admitted that the only reason the film was fully financed was because he agreed to have a white co-star. Enter the MacGuffin that is Ewan McGregor as Dave Braden, Rolling Stone reporter – and the stolen tapes of a Davis studio session. Enter Starsky and Hutch car chases, Miles firing shots at his Columbia record boss and night club police beatings. No – hang on, that last one really did happen. And here’s another problem: there’s so much in this eventful life that could have been the basis of a much more credible plot. With this, and Cheadle’s startingly original direction and central performance, the result would have been a five star film. As it is, go and see this Miles Ahead. You may be disappointed, but you’ll come away with a wholly believable snapshot of the most important musician of the 20th century.