Glasgow Film Festival: Don Cheadle directs and stars in this Miles Davis biopic
‘If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude, man,’ so says Don Cheadle as he assumes the guise of Miles Davis, with the actor taking his own advice in this unconventional, free-form biopic of the legendary jazz musician. It’s an evident passion project for Cheadle, who makes his directorial debut, as well as co-writing with Steven Baigelman, producing and taking on the lead role.
Framed, somewhat confusingly, as a piece of music played in answer to a question, the bulk of the film takes place in mid-1970s New York, where Davis (Cheadle) has become ‘the Howard Hughes of jazz’, holed up in his messy apartment and battling with a degenerative hip condition, drug dependency and creative block. He’s jolted out of his seclusion by the arrival of journalist Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), apparently on a commission from Rolling Stone, and soon the bickering pair are engaged in what amounts to a (fictional) guns-and-car-chases buddy caper, trying to retrieve a precious master-tape of recordings from slimy music exec Harper Hamilton (an underused Michael Stuhlbarg).
As director, Cheadle’s key innovation is the employment of dynamic editing techniques as a sort of jazz-influenced free association, so that the occasional image or sound will trigger a flashback to an earlier part of Davis’ life, though the film largely confines itself to recording sessions and his tempestuous relationship with his first wife, dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). This structure has a terrific pay-off late in the day where past and present appear to be flowing into each other in the same scene, but the film still ends up falling into all the usual biopic clichés it seems to be trying so hard to avoid.
Fortunately, the two lead performances are flawless, with Cheadle capturing Davis’ raspy voice and swagger and forming an enjoyable double act with McGregor. And what Miles Ahead lacks in biographical detail, it makes up for in attitude, offering an impressionistic and entertaining snapshot that captures the spirit of Davis’ life and career.
Screening on Sat 20 and Sun 21 Feb as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2016. General release from Fri 22 Apr.