Hot Take: Don Cheadle’s depiction of Miles Davis is worth the price of admission.
It’s a shame Miles Ahead came out in April because Don Cheadle’s masterful turn as Miles Davis will be largely forgotten by the time Oscar season rolls around. The Academy doesn’t go out of it’s way to nominate performances from the first half of the year or ones by black actors so it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion Cheadle’s on-screen brilliance will get lost in the shuffle.
Cheadle also directed and co-wrote Miles Ahead, a fictionalized riff on Davis’ life that rarely resembles reality. The Cheadle passion project feels like a jazz riff taking Davis and throwing him into a unique, addictive and controversial narrative. Some will balk at the fictionalized choices Cheadle makes but as the film opens with Davis being interviewed by a Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor) for the first time, you’re clued in to where we’re headed. As the reporter sets the stage for their interview about Davis’ comeback after disappearing for half a decade, Davis interrupts, “If you gon’ tell a story, come with some attitude, man!”
Instantly, we are transported into Cheadle’s jazz riff on the persona of Davis. The tale is fictionalized — from all accounts, Davis never fired a gun at Columbia Records or robbed a record executive of $1,000 just to prove a point — but within this addictive fictionalized telling, we get glimpses of the real Davis through flashbacks. It’s disjointed and unusual but also compelling and unique in it’s honoring of the style of Davis. It’s an anti-biopic in that it tells the story in a way no other biopic about a musician has done it which is very fitting considering Davis changed music five or six times, if you were to ask him. There’s no retelling of the first time Davis picked up an instrument or the first time he heard his music on the radio. Instead, this film takes huge risks with varying degrees of success.
The Rolling Stone interview with Cheadle about the film explains the choices. The backstory of the film being made is almost as fascinating as Miles Ahead, actually. There are plenty of issues Miles Ahead only glances at that will be troubling for those hell-bent on a literal retelling. Outside of being one of the greatest social musicians (don’t call it jazz) of all-time, Davis was abusive and a drug abuser. The movie doesn’t dodge either topic but decides to look away quickly from both and focus on his “G” persona and the music.
While the artistic choices of Cheadle as director and writer are debatable, his performance as Davis is flawless. The uneven storytelling is fitting to Davis’ music and life even if it isn’t a fact-by-fact account. There’s enough reality to get a feel for who Davis was and enough fantasy to get a feel for what Davis represented. It’s unconventional and concerned more about essence than exactitude. In that way, Cheadle and Miles Ahead gets it right.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Don Cheadle
When going through the list of movies from 2016 at the end of the year, Cheadle’s performance should at least make the short list of nominees for Best Actor. He embodies Davis and is the #1 reason to see this film.
The stream-of-consciousness retelling twisted around a sketchy reality is cool even when it misses. We’ve seen hundreds of Wikipedia-style regurgitations at this point, so seeing something fresh (albeit controversial) is refreshing.
- The Music
There’s plenty of Davis’ music present throughout the movie and it’s great to hear as it envelopes the film and, in turn, the film embodies the music.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- It’s Out There, Man!
Some will struggle with the choice to make Davis a reclusive gangster-type who is abrasive and dangerous. The film takes great liberties and if that doesn’t sound the least bit appealing, you may want to sit this celluloid riff session out.