Don’t call it jazz… it’s social music.” Miles Davis really did say that about his work. But he didn’t say it to Rolling Stone journalist Dave Braden, because Dave Braden doesn’t exist. Though one may readily imagine that the real Miles Davis would have been just as testy with journalists as the Miles we see onscreen in Miles Ahead is with the fictional Braden. It’s a testiness — and an accompanying desire to craft his own story to his own liking, to tell his story his own way — that informs everything about this ingeniously seductive film.
We could say, about Miles Ahead, “Don’t call it a biopic.” But what is it instead? It’s a dream, a fantasy about how Davis’s life shaped his music and vice versa. It’s a loose, free-flowing interpretation of Davis that becomes a kind of cinematic jazz. It is, perhaps most fundamentally, Miles Davis fan fiction… and I mean that in the most complimentary way, and not how fan fiction is generally used as a dismissive. Don Cheadle is a Miles Davis superfan, and this movie — which he cowrote, directed, and stars — could be said to be more about Cheadle’s impressionistic ideas of the man and his music than it is about the man and his music themselves. Of course even standard biopics shape their fact-based stories to create certain moods and feelings, but they are presumed to be rooted in what actually happened, and are called to account (rightly) when they deviate too far from that. Miles Ahead is, instead, about truth. Perhaps just one superfan’s truth… but that’s more than enough.
There is no doubting that what we see here is in no way intended to be taken as literal. The film opens with a 1970s-era Davis (Cheadle: Avengers: Age of Ultron, Flight) doing a conventional sit-down on-camera interview, and he’s utterly bored with it. So the faceless interviewer, just an off-camera voice, asks how they should go about this. Davis gripes it should be about telling a story, and telling it with “attitude”… and then we dissolve into a movie-movie dreamworld that’s almost a riff on 70s blaxploitation flicks. There are bits of fact in what follows — Davis did disappear from public view for the latter half of the 1970s, did live as a hermit in a house that was a complete mess, and truly wasn’t in great mental health at the time — but most of we see next is so freewheeling, so reckless, so purely entertaining that it can only be invention. Perhaps it’s a wild reverie on how Davis might have liked to imagine himself spending this period in his life… or what a fan might have liked to imagine Davis’s life was like, incorporating lots of garish tropes of power fantasies such as Shaft even as it completely avoids the “crazy is good for creativity” clichés.
Did Davis ever actually punch a journalist in the face, as he does to Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor: Mortdecai, Son of a Gun) here, when Braden comes to the door of Davis’s house to try bluster his way in for an interview? Not likely… but as this is the kickoff to the, for lack of a better term, dream sequence (which makes up most of the film) and Braden has the same voice as the off-camera interviewer who was annoying Davis, what a delicious bit of wish-fulfillment that must be on Davis’s part. Did Davis actually run around New York City, with Braden as his reluctant sidekick, wielding a gun at Columbia record execs and get caught up in car chases, all over a session tape that is the movie’s macguffin? Probably not. But it’s fun. (And since the death of Prince yesterday — Davis and Prince were good friends and fans of each other — it’s a reminder that artists fighting for ownership of their work, as represented here by the session tape that Davis refuses to hand over to Columbia, who are insisting that it belongs to them, is a neverending battle.)
If there’s anything disappointing here, it’s in flashback subplot about Davis’s relationship with his first wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), which treads a banal path — romance quickly followed on by abuse — that we’ve seen many times before. It’s a shame that Cheadle couldn’t find a fresh way to depict this side of the man. And it’s here where, I suspect, we are seeing more of the hands of Cheadle’s cowriters — Steven Baigelman (Get on Up), and Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (who together worked on Pawn Sacrifice and Ali) — whose previous work is on much more traditional biopics.
Overall, though, Miles Ahead is an unlikely but perfectly modulated tribute to the artist, a film as unconventional and as unheeding of genre boundaries as he was. Cheadle is incredible as Davis, but it’s his work behind the camera that is astonishingly assured, even more so given that this is his first feature film. Davis says here, about his music, that “it takes a long time to be able to play like yourself,” but Cheadle has somehow managed to make a movie that doesn’t feel like anything you’ve seen before his first time out. It makes Miles Ahead a genuine thrilling thing, as risky and as personal for Cheadle — the film was independently produced and partially crowdfunded — as Davis’s music was for him. Like Davis himself, Cheadle bucked corporate control and the preconceived dictates of the marketplace and was free to make a work of art that is uniquely his own. It’s only when you see a film like this one that you realize how rarely that happens.