Don Cheadle Powerfully Directs and Performs ‘Miles Ahead’

CHICAGO – The music powerhouse Miles Davis has been the subject of ardent analysis and studies, but none are more direct and engrossing than Don Cheadle’s film take in Miles Ahead. Using a structural style best compared to Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, Cheadle co-wrote, directed and performed as Miles Davis in the film, going so far as to learn to play the trumpet. Every bit of sweat and talent is in the film, and it has a kinetic and electric energy that is indicative in the music of Miles.

This type of life overview falls under the specious category of “anti-biography” (such as the film I’m Not There), as it creates a legend about a tape full of unreleased Miles music, that almost devolves into a vibe that conjures a Keystone-Cops-Meets-Quentin-Tarantino riff over the recording. Cheadle uses this might-have-happened story as a framework, for a flashback structure that goes over certain points of the luxurious career of the master, with the ups, downs and lost loves. Constantly, the music frames the proceedings, creating a symphony that combines sonic and narrative power.

Don Cheadle in 'Miles Ahead' Image: Sony Pictures Classics

Don Cheadle in ‘Miles Ahead’ Image: Sony Pictures Classics

Mainly set in the 1970s, Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) is a virtual recluse in his New York City apartment, owing his record company a new recording, which he hoards in a locked drawer. His shunning of society and the business makes him more mysterious, and a Rolling Stone magazine reporter, Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) is pursuing the Miles story by exchanging drugs and information.

Back at the record label, a sleazy agent named Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg) is exchanging some favors of his own, especially in regard to his young prodigy Junior (Keith Stanfield). In the chase for the elusive tape, the memories start to flood back for the legendary musician, including a fine and tragic romance with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi).

The film begins, ends and revolves around the talent of Don Cheadle. The consummate and intense actor co-wrote the screenplay, directed the film (his first feature) and portrays Miles Davis in all stages of his life. These are the exact circumstance that Orson Welles had in Citizen Kane, and Miles Ahead compares favorably with the style of Welles’ anti-biography classic. The structure is non-linear, and the main story is a bit of a “MacGuffin” – the Alfred Hitchcock term for a plot device that seems important but ends up not so much – and Cheadle uses the cinematic language in some engaging and surprising ways.

His supporting cast is wholeheartedly along for the ride, and every time Ewan McGregor turns up in a film, he reminds us what a diverse and interesting actor he is. His Dave Brill is a duplicitous opportunist, and takes a real beating for it, both physically and psychologically. In the eternal question of “who’s zooming who?” in the film, it seems that Miles is ahead. Michael Stuhlbarg is becoming this generation’s “man of a thousand faces.” His sleazy manager puts another level of ooze on that stereotype.

Mostly the film is a tribute to Miles Davis, a complex man whose talent was Mozart-like, and whose music influences resonate to this day. The mercurial aspect of his personality is well executed by Don Cheadle, as he showed most of the asshole and less of the master, but to the surrounding folks around the 1970s Miles – who deferred to his every utterance and even presence – he was a Christ figure, one who walked among mere mortals. That winds into a beautiful fantasy sequence at the end, and it impresses Miles upon us again.

Evan McGregor in 'Miles Ahead' Image: Sony Pictures Classics

Evan McGregor in ‘Miles Ahead’ Image: Sony Pictures Classics

The film does get a bit off track and redundant towards the conclusion, and the quest for the tape gets a bit like Quentin Tarantino stepped in – there is even a quasi “Mexican standoff.” However, the story is embossed with a filmmaker’s stamp, and Cheadle exposes himself not only as the rich actor that we’ve known for years, but also as a creative force, that generates a requisite hope that he will continue to write and direct.

In this review, I referenced Orson Wells, Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino. Not bad for the “actor” Don Cheadle, in his quest for his own “tape.” To borrow another pun using the same word, let’s hope that Don C. has “miles to go” with his creative pursuits.

Sony Pictures Classics Presents Miles Ahead, in limited release nationwide. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Michael Stuhlbarg, Keith Stanfield and  Emayatzy Corinealdi. Written by Don Cheadle and Steve Baigelman. Directed by Don Cheadle. Rated “R”