Though high-speed, higher-stakes car chases of the variety we find opening Miles Ahead are not hard to come by in modern cinema, there’s something remarkably enchanting about watching one featuring the most influential jazz musician in American history riding shotgun.
The verve may not hit all at once. Any experienced biopic viewer may assume the set piece in question could turn out to be little more than an energized track in the “greatest hits album” format that’s standard across the genre. Quickly enough, however, we begin to understand just how much of its time and attention Miles Ahead has chosen to devote to this particularly eccentric episode in Miles Davis’ storied life.
Serving as the movie’s principal through line, the story follows the aging musician and his conditionally witting partner-in-crime, Rolling Stone writer and relative stranger Dave Brill, on a nothing-to-lose attempt to retrieve Davis’ unheard and obsessively safeguarded new tracks after they’re stolen by a sleazy talent agent and his reluctant sole client. Mayhem ensues—the sort more befitting a buddy cop flick than a traditional biography picture.
That transgression of genre is precisely what makes director and star Don Cheadle’s approach to Miles Davis so mesmerizing. The film doesn’t treat its street races and gunfights as topical spices in its subject’s flavorful history; on the contrary, it’s the character of Davis—maybe even the notion of the character of Davis—who is used to augment what Miles Ahead’s central storyline is at its fibers: a madcap action-adventure.
So tight, cohesive, and downright enjoyable is this essentially self-contained narrative that it’s damn near jostling when Miles Ahead submits to the prerequisites of its nominal genre. Flashbacks into the chapters of younger Davises detail how the icon became the shattered shut-in that we meet at the start of the movie.
Though perhaps necessary on paper to provide a comprehensive account of the entity that is Mr. Davis, these jumps back in time—focusing foremost on his incrementally decaying marriage to Frances Taylor—are not only redundant, but counterproductive in practice. We’re given enough information in the heat of Davis’ misadventures with Brill to understand where his pained creative hiatus comes from, but are forced to shoulder timeline jumps that hack irreparably at the pace and energy of the focal story.
It doesn’t look to be custom alone that impels Cheadle to intersperse the various bullet points of Davis’ rise and fall throughout his otherwise unorthodox biopic. We see from the get-go that Miles Ahead spars amicably with the question of how to tell its subject’s story—Davis practically poses the quandary himself in the first half of a bookending device, prattling over the notion to an off-screen Brill and, more deliberately, the viewing audience. Throughout the film, the task of telling his own tale is a point of conflict to Davis, who is far more interested in (albeit distracted from) moving forward.
Likewise is Miles Ahead interested in but distracted from moving forward. Even as we find ourselves knee deep in the third or fourth colorless flashback upon his star’s erstwhile heartbreak, we can practically feel Cheadle aching to break free from the biopic mold to get back to the good stuff—namely, Davis and Brill’s zigs and zags across 1970s New York City to lay ruin to pushy record execs and pick up coke from college students. Nevertheless, he proves too enamored with his subject’s grandeur to risk leaving anything out.
So beholden to his adoration for Davis does the director seem to be that even his follies feel lionized. Davis’ resistance to his wife’s aspirations for fulfillment of her own, and his descent into physical abusiveness, are delivered in the same vein that Greek fables might assert the tragic flaws of their heroes. Though not necessarily excused, Davis’ submission to violence of all kinds is accepted as a side effect of his majesty.
And while it may be nobody’s mistake to herald Miles Davis a majestic artist, the penchant to hold him in such regard seems to be why Cheadle loses grip of his movie. When cutaway after cutaway offers no greater substance than the occasional agonized glance at a photograph of Frances, such scenes feel in greater service of the idolization of Davis than they do of the drive to tell his story.
But his story—the very specific, surprising story that Cheadle lays out through the majority of the picture—is a good one, riding high not only on its offbeat color but also on all the cogs in play. Cheadle sinks himself deep into Davis’ cloudy-eyed lunacy, turning out a dynamic, and improbably humane, action hero. Both sidekick and saboteur, Ewan McGregor plays Brill with a clumsy smarm that’s a delight to laugh both with and at.
Filling the sidelines are a goofball Michael Stuhlbarg as menacing agent Harper Hamilton, embodying showbiz douchebaggery with the vivacity of an Annie Hall extra, and a potently somber Lakeith Lee Stanfield, whom you recognize as Straight Outta Compton’s Snoop or Short Term 12’s Mark.
Finally, nearly as vivid as any of these human players is the wacky underworld they inhabit. Though we, regrettably, get little more of Manhattan than fleeting glances at Midtown side streets, the varied pit stops to and from which Davis and Brill zoom at drug-addled speeds return just as much erratic kookiness as their visitors dole out.
It’s a joy to spend the bulk of a movie racing around the city with (and inside the mind of) a hair-trigger-tempered, reality-divorced Miles Davis and his wheedling flunky Dave Brill. But the film can’t shake the fear that this isn’t the best way to tell Davis’ tale. Are we better off ripping from the adventure time and time again for a look at the rise and fall of the artist we’re introduced to in the heat of a coked up car chase? Maybe if you’re stopping by Miles Ahead for a history lesson, or perhaps a tribute. But not if you’re looking for the best story that it’s capable of telling.
Miles Ahead spends a lot of time struggling with the responsibility of telling its subject's story. But when it commits its focus to one particularly odd adventure, it becomes a surprisingly fun movie.