At first blush, it seems like a great idea: Don Cheadle as Miles Davis.
There’s enough of a physical resemblance between one of the best actors working today and one of the most fascinating musicians of the 20th century that you can see why Cheadle knew that he at least needed to give it a shot. Why, in fact, he chose “Miles Ahead” as his first foray into feature directing.
And he’s good, really good, especially in scenes like the opening one, in which Davis is being interviewed by a documentary filmmaker. Cheadle the actor revels in the chain-smoking, serpentine danger, and the enigmatic, unpredictable cool emanating from behind those ubiquitous dark shades. But Cheadle the director doesn’t quite know what to do with his star’s performance, smothering its sharp-edged brilliance in distracting plot elements like a set of Chinese throwing stars buried in Styrofoam packing peanuts.
The film eschews a standard, cradle-to-grave biopic approach to focus on the “lost years” of the late 1970s. For five years the legendary trumpeter who straddled classic bebop, fusion, and psychedelic exploration didn’t even pick up his horn, instead secreting himself away in a New York brownstone and swimming in a sea of booze, coke, and self-pity.
So far, so good. The dissipated-master thing works as a hook, especially in contrast to the occasional 1950s flashbacks chronicling Davis’ early studio work and his courtship of his first wife (Emayatzy Corinealdi, luminescent). But “Miles Ahead” lazily leans on one of the hoariest clichés in the quiver of film biographers: the intrepid reporter (here Ewan McGregor, for some reason) acting as Father Confessor, amanuensis, and viewer surrogate in one.
McGregor’s entirely fictional (and almost entirely annoying) character knocks on Miles’ door one day on behalf of Rolling Stone magazine and proceeds to accompany him for a weekend’s worth of debauchery, drugs, and danger. Cars are chased, bullets are fired, and master tapes are reclaimed from the clutches of sleazy record company execs.
Instead of relying on the power of Davis’ actual life and art, Cheadle and co-writer Steven Baigelman felt they needed to resort to buddy-action-movie tropes. It’s an approach you can’t help but imagine the subject of this well-meaning but misguided film would have found just plain silly.