There can be no more daunting task for an independent filmmaker than a biopic of a legendary musician. Hollywood biopics tend to reduce complex lives into a series of momentous events, inadvertently trivializing a subject typically held dear by audience and filmmakers alike. Films about musicians represent an even bigger challenge because there’s seldom enough screen time for a full-scale presentation of the music that inspired the film in the first place — and because so many music biopics seem to get lost in a gossipy haze of sex, drugs, bad marriages and abusive behavior.
All those story elements are necessarily present in Miles Ahead, first-time director Don Cheadle’s vibrant and unconventional reimagining of the life of jazz pioneer Miles Davis. But Cheadle — who also co-wrote the screenplay and appears in every scene as the iconic musician — mostly avoids the dreaded pitfalls of the form. His audacious film seeks only to be true to the spirit of its subject, venturing far afield in both style and content to penetrate the mystique that still enshrouds Davis decades after his death.
Miles Ahead depicts Davis at the low point of his career, toward the end of a five-year period of inactivity and dissolution in the late 1970s, with repeated flashbacks to his late 1950s and ’60s creative peak and his troubled marriage to dancer Frances Taylor. Remarkably, it takes cues from the low-budget Blaxploitation films of the ‘70s, using the device of a stolen tape containing music from Davis’ long-awaited “comeback” session to bring gunplay and car chases into an otherwise reality-based story. The scenes presented in flashback have a far more conventional tone, but the film moves easily between to its two visions of Davis. The contrast makes each appear stronger and more fully realized.
A music biopic as historical fantasy, Miles Ahead is anything but a solemn tribute to one of the 20th century’s most influential artists. It takes Davis cultural status as a given before getting down to the messy business of humanizing a mythic figure. It’s not hard to imagine fans taking exception to a film that spends more time on Davis’ character flaws than his genius, but you have to believe Davis would admire the film’s fearlessness and spirit of adventure.
The project began a long journey to the screen when Davis’ heirs approached the uniquely gifted Cheadle about starring in a narrative film. Entertaining and insightful, Cheadle’s performance brings Davis out of the shadows and into the light where he belongs. But his sure-handed work as first-time director is something few could have anticipated. A few scenes fall short of their ambitious goals, but there’s no denying the fertile imagination powering Miles Ahead.
The film is not for everyone, and those unfamiliar with Davis’s work and stature may wonder what all the fuss is about. Miles Ahead necessarily leaves out huge swaths of the artist’s life and creative output. But the enthusiastic participation of Davis’ heirs means the film can avoid the music-rights issues that often hamper music biopics. Davis’ inspired and wide-ranging music remains a strong presence throughout, whether as the focus of a particular scene or a soundtrack to dramatic events. Either way, the music grounds the film when all else fails and ensures that it lives up to the promise of its subject.
Miles Ahead opens today, April 22, at the Elmwood, Canal Place and Westbank theaters.