“Miles Ahead”: The thriller plot of this heavily sensationalized Miles Davis biopic — starring and directed by Don Cheadle — trivializes the jazz trumpeter’s contribution to music. 2 stars out of 4.
If the iconic jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis were alive today, he’d probably be amused by Don Cheadle’s wildly over-the-top film “Miles Ahead,” which Cheadle directed, co-wrote and stars in.
In 1985, during Davis’ comeback decade (he died in 1991), he once took a small role in the stylish cop show “Miami Vice,” playing a bordello owner.
“That was juicy,” he told me in an interview shortly after the broadcast, his raspy voice communicating the obvious relish he took in playing a sleazy underworld figure.
Movie Review ★★
‘‘Miles Ahead,’ with Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Michael Stuhlbarg. Directed by Cheadle, from a screenplay by Cheadle and Steven Baigelman. 100 minutes. Rated R for language, drug use, sexuality, nudity and brief violence. Several theaters.
Though he was a middle-class kid from East St. Louis, the child of a successful dentist who sent his brilliant son to Juilliard, Davis often presented himself as a tough, street-smart hipster and, in later life, took to dressing like a pimp.
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Perhaps appropriately, then, “Miles Ahead,” which is less a biopic than a fiction film set against a (mostly) factual backdrop, revolves around a trashy, TV-movie-caliber plot, complete with a car chase in which Davis, a freelance journalist (Ewan McGregor) and a record producer (Michael Stuhlbarg) shoot it out over a fugitive canister of reel-to-reel tape.
In principle, this is not such a terrible idea. Fiction can cut to the heart of a character, as the recent biopic about Chet Baker, “Born to Be Blue,” demonstrated. But the problem with “Miles Ahead” isn’t the playful, broad license it takes with Davis’ story, but that it’s so silly. Sure, Davis liked drugs and boxing and flamboyant clothes, but — hello! — that was a front for a shy, probing artistic genius who changed the face of American music.
Cheadle appears to know this. He portrays Miles with arranger Gil Evans, mulling over harmonies in the studio for the album the film is named for. But this and other serious scenes are trivialized by the thriller plot. To his credit, Cheadle nails Davis’ cool, whispering snarl and doesn’t gloss over his abominable treatment of his wife, Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi).
At one point, Davis tells his musicians to “be wrong strong,” an allusion to his famous line about making “wrong notes” sound right. Cheadle has bravely heeded the master’s advice.