Miles Ahead is a chaotic, uneven, but ultimately pretty good directorial debut from beloved character actor Don Cheadle, who here also plays Davis, and who also co-wrote the screenplay.
Despite being titled Miles Ahead, subject Miles Davis doesn’t spend much of the film’s running time being ahead. It takes place in a lull in his career circa the late 70s, when he was consistently coked out, nursing a hip problem, and, at least as the film depicts it, debilitatingly distracted by his lost love Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). The film hinges on the appearance of Dave Brill (obligatory white lead Ewan McGregor, who is at least an actor I tend to like), a journalist from Rolling Stone looking to make a comeback story out of Davis.
Miles Ahead is a chaotic, uneven, but ultimately pretty good directorial debut from beloved character actor Don Cheadle, who here also plays Davis, and who also co-wrote the screenplay. There was a period in the late 90s/early 00s where Cheadle seemed to have a role in just about any American movie of any merit—Boogie Nights, Out of Sight, Traffic, etc.—and he was always very good in these roles. After his seeming breakthrough as a leading man with his Oscar-nominated turn in 2004’s Hotel Rwanda, though, his movie career hasn’t been as strong as it once was, and the perception is that he has turned his attention to television, specifically with his role on House of Lies. After a long dearth, it’s nice to see him get a nice role he can really sink his acting teeth into, even if he did have to write this role himself.
Sometimes Miles Ahead falls into a similar trap as what Straight Outta Compton did, where it for a few scenes will turn too much into an action movie, where its filmmaking proficiency lies elsewhere. But, like Compton, this problem isn’t enough to keep Miles Ahead down. Elsewhere, you might recognize Compton’s Snoop Dogg, Keith Stanfield, here as upstart jazz musician, looking to horn in on Davis’ terrain. Stanfield is a strong young actor (look no further than his performance in Short Term 12 for evidence of this), but here he mostly serves to highlight how much more convincing Cheadle is at playing the trumpet than what Stanfield is.
A lot of Miles Ahead is like that. Corinealdi is convincing in her small role, but the real reason to see the film is for Cheadle himself. He’s one of those actors who can deliver so much with just a slight movement in his eyes or the faintest of smiles. I guess that’s the downfall of being as good an actor as Cheadle—sometimes it can’t be helped that he will make all of the other actors look bad.
As the film closes, a character asks of Davis, “Are you coming back?” Davis replies, “You better believe it.” While this of course points to the arc of the character in the film, one can only hope that it also applies to Cheadle as well; we could use more people of his level of talent around these days. | Pete Timmermann