The right notes
Don Cheadle tells compelling story of tumultuous period in life of jazz great Miles Davis
Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic is an astonishing accomplishment in every respect. Cheadle the actor is superb in his evocation of Davis’ high-voltage charisma, and Cheadle the director has mounted an artfully interwoven account of key fragments from the life and career of the legendary jazz musician and composer.
Cheadle and co-writer Steven Baigelman situate Miles Ahead in the period, circa 1970, when Davis was staying clear of the public eye, ignoring his record label’s pleas for new material, and working in secret on his experimental “social music.” An amiably aggressive music journalist named Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) barges in on Davis in hopes of scoring a rare in-depth interview, and promptly gets very caught up in the turmoil and risk-taking that marked that stage of Davis’ life and legend.
The Cheadle-Baigelman script, which credits Davis biographers Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson as sources, uses the mostly fictional Davis-Brill episodes both as a central narrative thread and as a springboard for flashbacks and visual allusions to other dramatic developments in the musician’s story.
Film editors John Axelrad and Kayla Emter do a brilliant job of interweaving bits of separate episodes into the flow of the action, and doing it in ways that simultaneously complicate and clarify. Plus, that complex flow is aided and abetted by Robert Glasper’s extensively arranged musical soundtrack, itself an interweaving of Davis-related music and Glasper’s own creations.
Cheadle’s kinetic incarnation of Davis, complete with a voice that is sometimes no more than a gravelly whisper, is thorough and precise. The intensity and conviction of the ways he talks and walks make the impersonation thoroughly credible (and renders the less than perfect facial match a nonissue).
McGregor’s madcap journalist comes across as a genuinely lived-in caricature of a freelance writer/music fan. And there’s something just right about having this eager-beaver, wanna-be hipster play the flummoxed sidekick to a hipster rascal who sometimes behaves like the no-name gunfighter in a spaghetti western, albeit one with no horses.
Emayatzy Corinealdi is very good as Davis’ first wife, the dancer Frances Taylor, who is seen here as a study in lucid passion and rugged integrity. Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent (and virtually unrecognizable) as a record exec who is both a villain in the story and yet another of its ruthlessly intelligent rascals.