A tendency to go for bloat has been one of the great temptations of the Hollywood music biopic, a tendency perhaps most egregiously entertained in this century by Walk the Line and Ray. Each, you may recall, has a keister-numbing duration of well over two hours.
Miles Ahead, a labour of love assembled seemingly almost single-handedly by 2004 Oscar nominee Don Cheadle, has the opposite problem. It's not so much the film's 100 minutes that irks as what occurs in those 100 minutes.
No, this isn't a complaint about Cheadle's much-discussed decision to centre most of his long-awaited anatomy of Miles Davis around two or three days in the legendary trumpeter/composer/bandleader's life in Manhattan in 1979. In fact, when I heard this was the case, I applauded. My hope was that the compression would extrude all the bargain-store psychologizing and simplistic "splainin" that afflict and inflate the typical biopic and instead leave us with the cinematic equivalent of one of Davis's pithy, vibratoless horn solos (a bio-vignette, if you will) and be all the more revelatory, affecting and intense for that.
As Miles fans know, 1975-1980 was an especially bleak period for the artist. He was living as a chain-smoking recluse in a cockroach-infested brownstone on the Upper West Side; he didn't seem to be composing any new music or recording; his chops were shot; the pain from degenerative hip disease had turned him into a delusional cocaine, sleeping pill and opioid addict. Was he depressed? Bipolar? Could he come back? Did he even want to?
Sadly, Cheadle doesn't do very much with all this dramatic potential and the result is a paradox: an Oscar-quality performance from the actor/director that's way too big for what's going on in the script, and a film about one of the biggest figures in 20th-century music that, notwithstanding some deft touches, is way too small a vehicle for delivering the significance of that.
Naturally, Miles Ahead is one mutha of invention, playing fast and loose with the facts and fictioneering whenever "necessary." But, of course, we expect nothing less these days. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of watching a biopic about someone you know is tallying up the untruths as they unspool before you. Or, if you don't know the subject, heading to Google after the fact to itemize the shortcuts and myths, elisions and fabrications.
What hurts Miles Ahead, though, is a lack of imagination. On the one hand, it's a kind of buddy flick – the buddy here being Ewan McGregor. He plays David Braden, a writer ostensibly from Rolling Stone who arrives on Cheadle's doorstep claiming he's been assigned to write the Miles Davis comeback story. Predictably, theirs is a rocky courtship but in short order the limping black genius and lame white tyro are a team of sorts.
First, they take on the suits at Columbia Records who are refusing to advance Miles $20,000 unless they get a copy of the demo tape he's supposedly been preparing. Then they score drugs from a feckless student in a Columbia University dorm. Then they battle Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), the unscupulous manager of a young Miles wannabe (Lakeith Lee Stanfield), who, while partying at Miles's lair, steals a session tape McGregor himself has had eyes on.
It's this narrative strand that most hobbles Miles Ahead. Not only does the theft make not a whit of sense, it precipitates a round of car-chasing and heavy gunfire on the busy streets of night-time "New York" (the film actually was shot mostly in Cincinnati) where, as ever (and conveniently), neither patrol cars nor innocent pedestrians are anywhere to be found. Altogether too much time is taken up with this quest to recover the Grail/tape, turning Miles Ahead in these moments into a dopey caper film. I kept waiting for the Owen Wilson/Ben Stiller or Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum tandem to make a cameo. "Dude, you're Miles Davis! Chill, bro' and let us professionals handle the problem!"
Cheadle intercuts the Davis-Braden hijinx with numerous flashbacks. Some feature Miles in musical moments – recording Porgy and Bess with arranger Gil Evans, playing Birdland with Bill Evans, rehearsing with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock in his basement. But as with the rest of the flashbacks, they occur very much within the frame of Miles's memories of Frances Davis (Emayatzy Corinealdi), the talented dancer who became his first wife, the cover model for his Someday My Prince Will Come and E.S.P. albums, and (or so we're supposed to believe) "the love of his life."
Saying that isn't saying very much, however: Davis committed matrimony on at least two other occasions in his 65 years and bedded thousands of women in and out of wedlock, siring, then neglecting several children along the way. By many accounts, including those of Frances, Davis was a superior lover but otherwise a volatile, manipulative, unnervingly paranoid, often violent presence, especially when under the influence of cocaine. While we see the tender and the abusive sides of the Davis-Davis relationship – one of the movie's coolest and sexiest scenes is their first meeting – they never amount to much emotionally, the result of Cheadle's tendency to keep on keeping on with the flashbacks and flashforwards.
Cheadle was recently quoted as saying he wanted to make a film that Davis himself would have liked or would have wanted to appear in. Hence, he said, it had to be "gangster… a heist movie. It's got to be crazy." Well, no, it doesn't. I'd like to think that for $8-million (U.S.) – the reported (low) budget of Miles Ahead – you can tell a good Miles Davis story without making it either an exercise in worshipful solemnity or a slice of pap pop. Miles Ahead? Miles behind is more like it.