Miles Davis wass a fantastic musician, guaranteed to be forever remembered for his innovation and skill. He permanently shaped the musical landscape, and those achievements are not to be understated. Nonetheless, he is not, in a conventional sense, famous. Although well known in his heyday, today, he remains unknown to a vast majority of Americans. Those who do know him, music fans and academics, know him by his music, and perhaps a few tidbits about his life.
“Miles Ahead”, Don Cheadle’s elaborate vanity project (Cheadle writing, directing, and starring in the title role), does not understand this. It can’t be concerned with such mundane things as plot, or characters. No, “Miles Ahead” is Capital A “Art”. Littered with ever so precious shots (“We’ll film a series of Polaroids instead of a montage! It’ll be perfect!”) and often repeated yet never explained platitudes (“Jazz is just a made up word. Call it “Social Music”,) the film can’t be bothered to tell us things like who Miles Davis is, how he got to the point we see him at, or why we’re supposed to care.
At this point, I would describe the plot to you, but the plot is so thin that I run into some difficulty. Davis is in a reclusive period, having spent the past 5 years locked up doing coke and frittering away his time in his large, Howard Hughes-esque apartment, and his studio is demanding he turn in a demo tape of his, which he is resisting. A Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor) volunteers to try to retrieve it in exchange for exclusive rights to his comeback story. Meanwhile, assorted villains are plotting to obtain the demo tapes by any means necessary. This results in silly, patently ahistoric car chases and shoot ups that even the film seems disinterested in.
The plot is an excuse to meander about, constantly doing drugs and waxing philosophic on the nature of jazz (sorry, “social music”). The film goes into a few ludicrous action set pieces, and endless flashbacks to Cheadle’s relationship to his ex-wife Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi,) always accompanied by a throaty whisper of “Frances”, spoken as if it was the name of his childhood sled. Not much of import happens, and any plot arc is a textbook study in anti-climax.
While the film could work as a character study, the three central characters are unpleasant and irritating, each in their own special way, completely alienating the audience from caring for them. Davis is a self-destructive egomaniac, but the film keeps asking our pity and understanding, even as he emotionally and physically abuses everyone around him. McGregor’s reporter is selfish and rude, and his only character arc seems to be learning to fall into (enabling, unhealthy) hero worship of Miles Davis, complete with an absurd, completely unbelievable sequence of his last doubt of the utter perfection that is Davis. Francis is likable enough, and Corinealdi is lovely, but the character has literally no agency in the story, and no time is spared for her internal world. She only acts as a perfect object for Davis to possess, and framing her eventual departure from an impossible to overstate barrage of emotional and physical abuse as the greatest tragedy in Davis’s life is profoundly uncomfortable.
The film enters a number of pointless cul-de-sacs, like a long, pointless drug run, and a sequence of racially motivated police abuse thrown in in a movie with no discussion of racial politics, as if Cheadle suddenly remembered that Davis was black and thought it would be more profound and Davis more pitiable if we could somehow frame him as a victim (it doesn’t work.) The effect is a deep tedium over the audience, punctuated only by abrupt and meaningless violence.
Acting is fairly uniformly bad. Other than Cheadle, McGregor, and Corinealdi, all acting either fall into the category of melodramatic mustache twirling over their plans to use and milk Davis dry, or fawning awestruck praise. Cheadle attempts complexity, but makes Davis come across less flawed and more a sociopathic obsessive bully. McGregor occasionally has a moments humor, or a flare of anger after a particularly egregious act, but generally only is there to bear witness to Davis. Corinealdi is the one element of unambiguous praise I can give the film. She carries her character with grace, dignity, and intelligence, when the script affords her little opportunities to.
Five minutes on Wikipedia have told me this: Miles Davis was born to an incredibly wealthy family, studied at Julliard and dropped out, developed throat polyps whose excision resulted in his signature (and in this film, ceaselessly grating) rasp, and played with and learned from the jazz (sorry, “social music”) greats of the 40’s. It also indicates he died in 1991, making the closing title card of “Miles Davis: 1926- ” irksome and pretentious, especially to an audience who has no idea if Miles Davis is still living or not. But the overall effect of five minutes of study is that Miles Davis lived a fascinating life, and a competent filmmaker could make a fascinating film of that life. This film, however, is not that life. It’s a strange, violent fantasy based of a poorly mythologized version of Davis, depicting his cruelty and self-destruction while forgiving them as necessary evils for the perfection of his art. It’s a sad, vulgar slog, and it’s greatest crime is alienating an audience of bewildered spectators from one of the jazz (yes, jazz, not “social music”) greats.
1 1/2 out of 4 Stars