Review: Don Cheadle hits lots of sweet notes in the not-really-a-biopic ‘Miles Ahead’

It's pretty clear where I got the first name of my first son, Toshiro, and he's well aware of the legacy of the artist who inspired that name. While he hasn't seen Seven Samurai yet, he knows who Toshiro Mifune was and that he is an actor I hold in very high regard. What's less immediately clear is that my younger son is also named after one of my artistic heroes, because it's his middle name. He is Allen Miles McWeeny, and sure enough, he is named after one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, a towering figure whose music has meant more to me than I can ever fully express.

Don Cheadle must share some of that same reverence for Miles Davis, and it's certainly clear from his new film as a star and as a writer/director that he embraces the full complexity of Miles, flaws and all. Miles Ahead is not a standard issue biopic, and people who don't know anything at all about Davis or his work may not appreciate some of the layers that Cheadle's built into the film. Conversely, people who have studied Davis and his biography may find themselves confounded by some of the story choices that Cheadle makes. There is some invention going on here, but it feels like it's all been done to try to create a structure on which Cheadle can hang some truth about Davis and who he was and how he worked and, to some degree, why he mattered.

The film is framed as an interview between Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) and Miles Davis (Cheadle), and as soon as they start talking, Miles can't resist poking at the entire idea of the formal interview. It's clear that he hates the idea of sitting down and walking through each of his career accomplishments in order, and he mentions that stories should be told with attitude. This launches us into the actual film, in which Brill is a participant, bullshitting his way into a situation where he is right there alongside Miles at a turning point in his artistic life. Set near the end of the six-year sabbatical he took in the late '70s, the film focuses on Davis as an artist well aware of the impact he's already had on his chosen art form and not sure what the future will bring.

Cheadle's work as Davis is impeccable. Not only does his physical transformation work persuasively (his hairline alone is a thing of remarkable accomplishment), but he gets the voice right, both when he's speaking and when he's playing. The film doesn't really work as an introduction or a primer for people who aren't already aware of Davis and his work, and for some, that will be a failing. Instead, this is a snapshot of Davis at a particular moment when he's haunted by his own successes and failures. If you've read his memoirs, then you know Davis could be shockingly hard on himself and unsparing in the way he revealed his own human frailties. Cheadle doesn't shy away from any of that, but he is careful to punctuate the film's darker observations with moments that reveal the genius of his music and the humor that was such a big part of who he was as a person. Davis could be a rigorous taskmaster when working with other musicians, but he had a sharp, wicked wit, and Cheadle goes out of his way to include all of that in this portrait of the musician. Even watching the way he holds his embouchure when he's playing in flashbacks to earlier more productive eras, it's clear that Cheadle has studied the fine details of Davis and done everything he can to bring the legend to life on a human scale.

Emayatzy Corinealdi plays Frances Taylor, who famously appeared on the cover of Columbia's release of Someday My Prince Will Come, and who was married to Davis through some fairly turbulent years. An accomplished dancer in her own right, she gave up her work to be with him, and the film does a nice job of charting her own growing frustrations and sorrows, especially as she has to deal with the mercurial nature of Davis and his genius. What could easily be a background role is not, and part of that is simply because Corinealdi is not someone you can push to the background. She brings some real strength to the role, and she stands toe to toe with Cheadle in the film's toughest scenes. There's also good supporting work from Michael Stuhlbarg, and I think McGregor is quite good here. However, there was no Dave Brill, and the Rolling Stone article he is there to write didn't exist, and that may be a real sticking point for people. It is an act of creation that allows Cheadle to build a particular framework for the film, and that framework then allows him to work in all sorts of real stories and anecdotes. So while there is an untruth at the heart of the film, it's in service of illuminating any number of smaller truths, and I find that approach fascinating.

Cheadle's co-writers on the film, Steven Baigelman, Stephen J. Rivele, and Christopher Wilkinson, have a very unusual set of combined credits. Baigelman is best known for Feeling Minnesota, while Rivele and Wilkinson have worked on such “based on a true story” films as Nixon, Pawn Sacrifice, and Ali. Ultimately, though, this is Cheadle's movie. As director and star, he is the one who is making the big decision about how to portray Miles Davis, and one of the smartest things he does is allow the music to speak for itself. The film is wall to wall with some of the best recordings from the vast Miles Davis library, and it represents all sorts of different eras from his career. Handsomely photographed by Roberto Schaefer, Miles Ahead doesn't feel completely of its era. Instead, it feels like an act of memory, burnished and polished and in some ways stylized and removed from reality. That's no accident, though, and Cheadle exhibits quite a bit of control as a filmmaker.

Passion projects are tricky things. They are just as often terrible and overthought as they are rewarding, but Cheadle's dedication shines through here. I'm not sure how this will play to people who don't already appreciate Davis, but for me, it was a terrific ode to someone who changed popular art not just once, but over and over. It feels like a fitting monument, and I hope people give it a chance when Miles Ahead arrives in theaters in April. It may have been met by some mediocre reviews at the New York Film Festival, but I think it's a lovely overall effort, and I hope Cheadle is rewarded for the effort which resulted in such a clear-eyed look at this towering figure.

Miles Ahead opens in theaters in NY and LA on April 1st.