Few movie genres go through as much experimentation as the music biopic. Some are straight and fairly linear (Ray, Great Balls of Fire, Straight Outta Compton) and encapsulate the creative growth of the artists along with the controversies and scandals that dog most singers in their careers. Some are almost accepted as semi- (or fully) fictional despite being about real people (Sid and Nancy, 24 Hour Party People), and some are merely inspired by the soul or moods of the artist or his/her music, any pretense to plot or reality thrown out the window (I’m Not There, The Doors).
Whatever the faults to be found in Don Cheadle’s passion project as director and star Miles Ahead, it’s certainly something you’ve never seen before. In the 1970s, long after Davis’ heyday as one of the world’s foremost ‘social music’ players (he hated the term ‘jazz’), he’s a virtual recluse in his house full of accolades, drugs and a tape containing some sessions never released to the public or his record company.
When Rolling Stone journalist Dave (Ewan McGregor) talks his way into Davis’ house in search of the story about why he’s been so quiet and whether rumours about the hallowed tape are true, the pair form a strange bond despite Davis’ initial indignation and air of threat. Cheadle plays him as you imagine he was like from the stories you might have heard – abrasive, profane, dismissive and eccentric, his voice scoured to a rough whisper after decades of hard living.
Such as it is, the linear plot deals with an action movie caper as Miles and Dave team up to retrieve the tape after it’s stolen by a slippery record company exec (Michael Stuhlbarg) during a party as Davis’ house, but that that doesn’t cover even half the running time. Everything going on is a series of flashbacks that deal with Davis’ musical growth, his love for his muse, Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and the spiral of self-destruction he fell into after their marriage fell apart.
Rather than tell Davis’ life story – or even a part of it – Cheadle opts to use the mythology of Davis’ personality and music to portray what he imagines based on his heart and journey. The race to retrieve the tape (which involves a car chase and gunfight in the streets) never happened, but as the scene that bookends the whole movie seems to suggest, little of what’s depicted on screen really did. Davis himself might be imagining the whole thing in a fever dream, or just making up a good story.
McGregor doesn’t have much to do but react because this is Cheadle’s show all the way through. He has Davis’ stance, look and attitude down pat, but whether the rest of the film grabs you will depend on your tolerance for stories served up that connect point A and point B and do little else. As David himself says at both the beginning and the end, if you’re going to tell a story, do it with some attitude. It’s a philosophy Cheadle’s taken to heart, so even if you consider Miles Ahead a creative failure, it’s a noble one.