Jazz is a dirty word in the rule-breaking head-trip Miles Ahead. Early on, wacked out music legend Miles Davis (Don Cheadle), currently mired in a drug-induced multi-year retirement, chastises a smarmy Rolling Stone reporter named Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) for describing his work incorrectly, preferring "social music" as a fitting descriptor. Labels are illusive and incomplete in this oddly affecting and lucid take on the innovative American trumpeter, bandleader and composer. To accept them as fact is a great artistic sin, an affirmation of your status as a reductive cultural tourist.
Davis rose to fame in the 1950s and would continue to influence American music until his death in 1991. Instead of trying to capture his entire life in an insufficiently linear fashion, Miles Ahead focuses on the tail end of his retirement period (1975-1980) when Columbia Records began hassling him to make new music and the opportunistic Brill tried to get him on record about a possible comeback. Using psychedelic flashbacks and jarring sound bridges, the film tackles Davis' career as a series of disjointed fragments.
Directed and co-written by Cheadle (with Steven Baigelman), Miles Ahead coolly disobeys the conventional wisdom of linear storytelling; it simply has no need for it. In examining the life of such a dynamic person and musician, Cheadle understands that he has grabbed a historical tiger by the tail. All he can do is hold on. The film is breathless at times, cutting between images and time periods as if the memories in Davis' head were battling it out for control. Sometimes a specific sound or gesture will set off these frantic jumps in logic.
Instead of giving us a life's story, Cheadle gives us a life's essence. The film assembles a mosaic of experiences and references that don't quite add up to a clearer picture, but communicate a sense of Davis' complicated love affair with music and self-destruction. Guilt produced from a failed marriage to dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) haunts him most of all. Cheadle refuses to pity his flawed subject, portraying Davis' hard drinking and drug addiction as just another coping mechanism that also includes denial and delusion.
For the film's first hour, Cheadle somehow manages to keep up this swiftly experimental pace, building toward a larger crescendo involving his embattled relationship with Brill. Unfortunately, that climax involves a silly chase sequence where a shady music producer (Michael Stulhbarg) tries to blackmail Davis for his secret session tape. Here, Miles Ahead becomes a slightly comedic buddy comedy, another in a long line of tonal departures. Despite this unrewarding turn of events, it's hard not to admire such daring structural flexibility.
Cheadle understands the impossibility of filling in the blanks of any man's life, and there's something powerful about embracing that sense of incompletion. The film does so through a heightened, hallucinatory aesthetic that mirrors the fluidity of its subject's music. During an opening interview, Davis calls out Brim for trying to sugarcoat his life: "If you're going to tell a story, come with some attitude."
Miles Ahead, which opens on Friday, April 15, brings the attitude and then some. Destroying the typical boundaries of classic set design and time, it rather brilliantly suggests a subjective perspective can aesthetically break apart, divide on impact, tailspin into a deep void of depression. The biopic genre has been mined so many times by lackluster filmmakers with no vision that Cheadle's imperfect, elliptical mish mash feels slightly revolutionary. His nutty performance is equally riveting, a combination of grating insecurity and established bravado that hides a layer of longing underneath.
Genius innovators like Davis can never truly be pegged, not by labels (music or otherwise), critics or films. Cheadle has come close to giving us a better understanding of why.