The Miles Davis we find in Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle's punchy, impressionistic take on the great jazz trumpeter and composer, is an ornery recluse. Camped out in his smoky New York den, he's "jazz's Howard Hughes." He hasn't performed in years. He's hobbled by chronic pain. He's high on drugs. He's low on funds. The genius behind Kind of Blue, behind Sketches of Spain, behind Bitches Brew - who knows what's happened to the guy?
Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), a hoppity, long-haired journalist who says he's a staffer at Rolling Stone, wants to know. He comes knocking on Davis' door, ready with his questions and his cassette recorder, and ready to function as a narrative device in a film that boasts one of the strongest performances of the year - Cheadle's, that is.
Set in the latter half of the 1970s, when Davis stopped touring and mostly stopped recording, too, Miles Ahead follows this mismatched duo as Davis goes in search of a missing master tape, and as he goes back in time, remembering his relationship with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), the woman he would marry and torment. (They divorced in 1968.)
McGregor's ambitious, duplicitous Braden serves as the audience's eyes and ears in a movie that tries hard to jettison the usual music-biopic format, the usual clichés. The film doesn't entirely succeed on those counts, but Cheadle - who also cowrote, produced, and makes an assured directing debut - is a mesmerizing Davis. Tense and often terrifying, Cheadle captures the enigma and the energy of the horn player, his eyes often shielded by bulky sunglasses, hiding the glint of genius, the glint of paranoia.
The actor, who learned to play trumpet for the role, presents Davis as wary, wily, self-critical. (In one scene, Davis dismisses his landmark album, Kind of Blue, in just three words: "I missed it." A whole world would beg to differ.)
Like some low-rent '70s action pic, Miles Ahead has guns and goons, and a car chase, too. There's a scene where Davis gets rousted by the cops - for being a black man with attitude. He does not go quietly into the night.
Nor does the film's soundtrack, borne aloft by original Davis recordings ("So What," "Seven Steps to Heaven," "Nefertiti," and the title song, among others) and boasting a cool underscore from hip-hop jazzman Robert Glasper.
Miles Ahead is more a provocative character sketch than a meaty portrait, but it's a film that should be applauded for its daring, and for Cheadle's shape-shifting, soul-baring work. As Davis says in the movie, talking to a band of session players, spurring them on: "Be wrong - strong."
In other words, go for it with everything, even if you blow it.