Don Cheadle as Miles Davis
For his feature directorial debut, Don Cheadle has presented himself with a golden opportunity – to play jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (1926-91). It’s the role of a lifetime, and Cheadle plays it to the hilt. Miles Ahead isn’t so much a straight biography as a dramatization of certain events in Davis’ turbulent life. To paraphrase Kris Kristofferson (“He’s a Pilgrim”), it’s partly fact and partly fiction.
Cheadle employs a familiar device by introducing into the narrative the prototypical journalist, in this case Ewan McGregor’s Dave Braden, a (wannabe) Rolling Stone reporter who, much against his wishes, becomes Davis’ partner in crime(s). He’s looking for a story, and he finds one. (Typically, however, he doesn’t know what to do with it.)
Nevertheless, McGregor is a lively counterpoint to Cheadle’s mercurial Davis. Like many actors-turned-directors, including his friend George Clooney, Cheadle allows his actors room to maneuver – even though his character is undoubtedly, and necessarily, the center of attention.
There’s good work from Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances Taylor, the wife who Davis loved and lost; Keith Stanfield as an up-andcoming musician with problems of his own; and Michael Stuhlbarg, deliciously devious as the sort of underhanded sleazeball who gives record executives a bad name. (If they’re going to be bad, Davis will simply be worse.)
The story moves back and forth between the 1950s, during Davis’ early stardom, to the 1970s, where he has become an embittered, coke-snorting, gun-toting recluse – “Jazz’s Howard Hughes,” according to Braden in one of his brighter insights – yet still a figure of legendary proportions. Any resemblance to Citizen Kane (1941) is likely intentional, and works just fine in this context. As well as being one of the film’s producers and screenwriters, Cheadle oneups Orson Welles by also being one of the composers, too.
If Cheadle doesn’t necessarily resemble Miles Davis physically, he captures him from the inside-out. He’s got the voice, he’s got the hair (and how!), and he’s especially got the attitude, which veers from the dynamic to the diabolical. Cheadle’s Miles Davis is not a nice man, but it soon becomes clear that he’s been wronged enough times throughout his life to not just be on the defensive, but frequently take the offensive. It’s a little early to be making awards predictions, but Cheadle’s performance is certainly one of the best of the year to date.