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Biopic Of The Cool: Don Cheadle Channels A Jazz Legend In Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle's feature directorial debut takes Miles Davis's sage advice: 'If you're gonna tell a story, come with some attitude. Don't be all corny with this shit.'

In his jazzy Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, writer, director, and star Don Cheadle doesn't care about pretty pictures. While his Davis talks, the camera wanders from his face to his hands and back again, leaving the background unfocused. At first, you're confused. This is Cheadle's first feature — does he know what he's doing? He does. His restless lens forces us to see Davis's world through Davis's eyes: If something didn't command the coked-up and crazy trumpet player's attention, it didn't exist. Wives, contracts, careers — who cares? What matters is whatever Davis wanted at the moment, and in Miles Ahead, that's usually drugs, cash, or a stolen secret recording, which Davis and his uneasy ally Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), a Rolling Stone reporter, chase all over 1979 New York.

In this movie, even the facts are blurred. I use the word "biopic" grudgingly, the way that Davis tolerated "jazz." He preferred the term "social music," a nonsense phrase that means everything and nothing. (Since moody bands like The Cure sell out stadiums, what music isn't social?) Nothing in Cheadle's script should be taken as truth. The film opens with Davis in a car-chase shootout with a fictitious producer's fictitious bodyguard — a self-destructive thrill ride that captures his mental state while being, alas, totally imagined. From there, the movie's melody thumbs its nose at reality the way Davis would hijack his band's groove. One of his strategies: When the music is fast, play slow. When the music is slow, play fast. Or, as Cheadle's Davis rasps, "If you're gonna tell a story, come with some attitude. Don't be all corny with this shit."

Miles Ahead is propelled by sound. Davis's eyes drifted, but his ears were alert. Music ruled his mind. When Davis, here a 53-year-old recluse, hears the radio play a track from Sketches of Spain, an album he recorded while married to his wife of 10 years Frances Taylor (the fantastic Emayatzy Corinealdi), the room shifts and suddenly she appears, an apparition summoned by his happier horn playing. In an elevator, the clangs and dings turn into a concert, and as Davis turns around, the back wall slides open and he steps into the past.

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The actual plot takes place over 36 whirlwind hours as Davis races around Manhattan with the slippery, smooth-tongued Braden, a man clearly used to getting doors slammed in his face. (Braden is also an invention, though he shares initials with real-life Rolling Stone reporter David Breskin, who profiled Davis in 1983.) There are no rote scenes of Davis's middle-class childhood, none of the smack addiction that nearly derailed his career in the early '50s, none of his life-saving second wife Cecily Tyson, whom he'd already won over in 1979. We've seen a million movies where a good woman rescues a troubled man. Instead of the expected rise-fall-comeback arc of every other superstar biography, Miles Ahead is more interested in matching music and mood to memory. It feels almost improvised, a creation at once shaggy and fresh.

Make that semi-fresh if you've seen 2014's James Brown movie Get on Up, another wonder arranged more by attitude than audience expectation. Both films are about a legend creating his own mythology. In Get on Up, there's a scene in which 7-year-old James is getting beaten up in a boxing ring to amuse a rich, white crowd. He's knocked to the mat. Then he hallucinates the ragtime band playing the opening chords of a funk number he wouldn't write for 20 years, and his own future glory rouses him to his feet. Miles Ahead isn't quite as structurally daring — Davis stops short of time travel — but it works as a solid remix of a stellar song. Or maybe it deserves more credit than I think. It's unclear what year we're in during the Davis performance that closes out the film, though the back of his jacket reads #SOCIALMUSIC. But Davis died in 1991. Is Cheadle suggesting that Davis predicted Twitter hashtags? Or is the point that Davis's brassy, skittery late period, which had the pulsing art-rock energy of Prince, still sounds modern today?

Cheadle captures Davis's menace and cocky swagger, and for better and worse, he also nails his late-'70s faux-snakeskin shirts and Jheri curl. He clearly spent months working on Davis's ghostly rasp, the result of a throat operation gone wrong, and spent four years learning the trumpet — as long as it took for the funding to come together. Cheadle played sax as a kid, so he already had an edge on mimicking Davis's finger work. (Trumpeter Keyon Harrold recorded the actual songs.) Even so, Cheadle wanted his hands to look perfect, and he uses that nervous energy even when his horn is across the room. In bed with the beautiful Frances, a dancer he pressured into giving up her career, Cheadle's Davis taps a few notes on her arm as though she's the loveliest instrument he owns. Later, when their relationship turns abusive, he apologizes with an over-the-top diamond-and-ruby necklace that he fastens around her neck like a collar.

Long before then, I'd noticed that Miles Ahead is crammed start to finish with music. There's not a frame of silence. Even in quiet moments, you hear Davis's heart pound like a drum, counting off the next furious burst of energy. "My ego only needs a good rhythm section," he once bragged to a reporter. That's the right metaphor for a biography that dodges the expected beats to dream up its own strange song. Or as Davis himself said, "It's not the notes you play, it's the notes you don't play."