When considering characters or personalities known as legends, it is important to remember that much of their renown is also built upon innuendo and embellishment, creative recollections and plain mistruths. There are many things that make up a legend, most of which are rooted in truth and accomplishment, while others require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief for the legend to become narrative. It is with this in mind that I approach the much-anticipated directorial début of Don Cheadle – Miles Ahead.
Mr. Cheadle, acting in the titular role, first came to mainstream attention in 1995’s, Devil in a Blue Dress, the Walter Mosley adaptation set in black Los Angeles of the 1950s, with his portrayal of “Mouse”, an unpredictable, intense charmer who always carried the implication of violence, and often enacted it. Perhaps Miles Davis could be described in much the same way, but it would be inaccurate to suggest that this performance was a reprise. It’s possible that the brash and unapologetic “Mouse” was somewhat based on the legend character of Miles Davis. It’s even more possible still that a then young Cheadle carried the hopes of one day bringing that role to screen, with dream casting discussions mentioning him as perfect for the part if it ever materialized. As it happened, the role did indeed materialize when Cheadle was approached by Davis’ nephew Vince Wilburn, asking him to portray the musician. He and the Davis estate agreed that not only would he play the lead, but would also take the helm in writing and directing. But, alas, in the make-believe world where stories are told, getting the project to completion would present more of a challenge.
Ten years ago Cheadle set to writing the screenplay, deciding against following the music biopic conventions of detailing all of the career signposts and stylistic clichés. No matter how one would have approached this project it would have been challenging. Add to that the financial realities of Hollywood, which necessitated that the first-time director also cast a bankable white actor in order to secure funding, a narrative of one of history’s greatest musicians, a no-brainer, was actually a hard sell. He finally did secure the money to bring the film to screen, ultimately using crowd sourced fundraising, the entire process perhaps offered a freedom to tell the story in the manner he chose; “If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude. Don’t be all guarded with the sh*t”, the actor exhorts early in the film. He does just that by offering a fan-fiction version of the enigmatic artist’s most mysterious period – that as he emerged from the mid-seventies, self-imposed exile of his Upper West Side Manhattan apartment.
Cheadle has obviously spent years listening to and studying Davis, and deeply mines the music Columbia released during that time. At the end of the sixties Davis and his longtime producer, Teo Macero made liberal use of advancing technologies in recording, and with Davis’ increasing abandonment of chordal structure, embracing instead modalism and thematic forms, multi-tracking and overdubbing entered his oeuvre. He would often leave his sidemen alone to work out ideas and concepts while he surreptitiously recorded them, only to be added to and built upon later. The players themselves would be unaware of the final form until after Miles deemed it complete and ready for performance. So too seems to be the case with Cheadle, who adds layer upon layer to his non-linear production, resulting in a mélange of themes suggesting the excerpted life and times of Davis.
Editing is always the aspect of filmmaking that requires the most discipline; the most control. Davis is famous for using a “less is more” approach to his music. It was in the notes that he didn’t play, his economy and sparseness, is where the beauty was found. Apparently, here too is a lesson taken from the master. The film skitters back and forth from late fifties and mid-sixties era Miles, the bebop superstar Miles, to the coke-addled, arthritic, hobbled and reclusive Miles of the mid to late seventies. It is unknown if the real man was as reflective as shown in the film, reminiscing on the past with an obvious fondness and longing. An artist known for not looking backwards is shown doing a lot of that, but it’s a device, more than it is an exposition.
Of mixed success is the use of the character of Frances Taylor, Davis’ first wife, played by the stunning Emayatzy Corinealdi. Introduced to many in the Ava DuVernay helmed film, Middle of Nowhere, Corinealdi is an actor of range and promise and this character, beautifully presented, is perhaps less exposed than audiences may wish for. But, again, less is more. Unmentioned are Betty Davis and Cicely Tyson, Davis’ second and third wives, respectively – each of whom had an enormous influence on this period of his life. The Taylor character does however, represent an important foundation to the thematic poles of the film, which are both pursuit and capture. It was said that Davis, in real life, could merely summon a sideman he wished to play with and they nearly always obliged. The courtship of Taylor’s character was shown in somewhat the same fashion, and once captured, Davis controlled. With this, Cheadle wasn’t shy about exposing the tarnish to the legend. Davis was known to be a womanizer, a chauvinist and sometimes abuser. As with most a-type personalities, Cheadle portrays Davis with an extreme confidence that veils insecurity. He is emphatically in control, even when it’s apparent that he isn’t.
The most talked about storyline is the relationship between Davis and the created character of David Braden, the Rolling Stone reporter pursuing the story of Davis’ comeback. That Ewan McGregor is a white actor playing the role is irrelevant, except with regard to financing the project, and it shouldn’t distract. His wit and timing provides perfect counterpoint. The importance of the character is in playing Davis’ superego manifested, by not only attempting to write his story, but in helping to pursue the crooked Columbia attorney who had stolen his studio masters. Braden displays the grounded rationale that Davis lacks, while also employing similarly sly manipulations. What unfolds is a pulse-pounding buddy film with shouting matches, car chases and gunfights – episodes, the likes of which may or may not have occurred in the life of the musician known for racing his Ferraris on West Side Highway and having numerous confrontations with police. One such depicted confrontation finds Davis battered and bloodied by a racist beat cop as he walks a woman to a cab outside of the nightclub in which he was performing. As an obvious nod to present day events, Cheadle shows the viewer that some things haven’t changed. Careful viewers will note the sequence is scored with the Wayne Shorter composition, “Sanctuary“, which is alternatively plaintive and aggressive – the scene cutting back and forth between the sidewalk and the living room in which he beats his wife.
The other pivotal relationship is with the perhaps fictional and composite character, Junior, played by Keith Stanfield. He serves, in this case, as Davis’ id, a young and talented musician, struggling with a heroin addiction, maybe a reference to Davis’s own addiction at the same time in his life. This character shows the same innate ability of a youthful Miles, while also the lack of impulse control, and is part of the pursuit and capture theme that repeats throughout. All of these devices should not be seen as faults, but instead as the means of presenting a version of the legend. There is enough verisimilitude to quiet purists, and plenty of action to thrill an audience more casually familiar with the artist.
Finally, and most importantly, Cheadle delivers what is so far the role of his career. He is absorbed in the character, avoiding caricature, and instead revealing and carrying attitude and behavior characteristics likely unknown to an audience only familiar through old photographs and recordings. This is the legend made nearly real, with his latter-era hair pieces and psychedelic inspired outfits, this isn’t The Birth of the Cool – it’s the frenetic, advancing-age of the cool, and it convinces completely. He is presented as the superhero many fans may imagine him to have been – Shaft with a trumpet, a badass without having to be accountable for it. The stylistic details, wardrobe, the set design, and especially the music are so well realized, the audience may miss that Cheadle, himself is actually playing trumpet, having studied for four years prior to beginning filming. His immersion in the character is thorough, exacting and inspired. The audience should revel in the soundtrack, too, which includes lesser known performances such as “Interlude“, which opens the film with a recreated video performance of a 1975 concert in Osaka, Japan, which was the performance that precluded Davis’ years in exile. Original compositions were contributed by multi-Grammy award-winning musician, Robert Glasper, Jr., who authentically conveys Davis’ music without relying on mimicry. Easter eggs abound, and hardcore music fans will be thrilled with cameo appearances, as well as the inclusion of songs available on deep vault collections only released in the last decade. This is music-nerd treasure and will likely drive album sales and downloads.
The overall success of this film and Cheadle’s direction lies in his decision not to be constrained by what the audience already knows about Davis, but rather finding freedom in exploring, and even adding to what it doesn’t. When McGregor’s character presses Miles for more details for his article, asking, “I guess I just fill in the blanks later”, Cheadle as Miles gruffly responds, “that’s what all you writing motherf*ckers do anyway.”
Starring Don Cheadle, Emayatzi Corinealdi, Ewan McGregor and Michael Stuhlbarg. Directed by Don Cheadle. Was released April 1 in NY and LA, and opens nationwide April 15.
Craig Carpenter is a filmmaker and photographer based in Philadelphia and New York, and self-described Miles Davis enthusiast. He has worked in commercial production, feature films, concert and music videos. His photography first appeared on MMT in the post “The Life Celebration of radio legend and activist E. Steven Collins.” Check out his MMT spotlight on soul artist Eryn Allen Kane here.