One of the strengths of Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s excellent new Davis biopic, is the way it rejects that approach, capturing its subject’s musical genius while still delivering a quick-paced plot. It achieves that in part with a gonzo, fictionalized storyline involving a stolen reel of tape, high-speed car chases, and gunplay. But it also does by avoiding the easy path. Instead of focusing on Davis at the height of his powers—say, at his Brooks Brothers-clad apogee in the 1950s, when he’d kicked heroin and was recording the top-selling jazz record of all time—it depicts him at his lowest moment.
In the late 1970s, after driving hard into a psychedelic, electric direction, Davis quit music, entering a reclusive haze of debauchery, pornography, cocaine, and dissolution. (Don’t take it from me, or from Cheadle. Davis described it unblinkingly in his autobiography.) Cheadle’s Davis is bitter, violent, coke-addled, physically spent, and has let his chops go so far that he can’t really play his horn. Jheri-curled, balding, and sporting a wardrobe that is (generously) an amazing period piece, he lounges around his darkened apartment, haunted by memories of his ex-wife Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi), who left him over his violent abuse and endless philandering. It’s not cool at all.
Reaction to Miles Ahead has focused, sometimes critically, on the fictionalized elements of the movie. The plot circles around attempts by an invented Rolling Stone reporter, played by Ewan McGregor, to interview Davis about a supposed comeback, and Davis’s attempts to recover the stolen recording. The inventions aren’t as crazy as they might seem. Davis was shot at while driving around Brooklyn in 1969; he was also famously violent.
There’s also drug use—a staple of jazz biopics, from the 1972 Billie Holiday film Lady Sings the Blues, or the 1988 Charlie Parker homage Bird, in which the saxophonist’s heroin habit takes center stage, undermining his brilliant career and ultimately bringing about his untimely demise. Filmmakers, along with critics and listeners, have tended to treat this kind of dissolution as romantic and glamorous. “He was the essence of cool,” one critic wrote of Parker in his review of Bird, a role Miles has overtaken since his death. Forest Whitaker’s Bird was a doomed hero, fitting “the paradigm of the jazzman-as-victim,” as Janet Maslin put it, quoting Nat Hentoff.
But drugs never becomes the focus of Miles Ahead, perhaps because coke—which Cheadle’s Davis eagerly sniffs—isn’t an especially romantic drug. (A one-time heroin addict, the trumpeter kicked the habit in 1954, locking himself in a room at his father’s house and going cold turkey. He was forthright about his continued cocaine use later. ) If Miles Ahead’s subject is a victim, it’s only of his own paranoia, misogyny, and anger: Begged to return to music, he withdraws farther. (Davis did return to live performance in 1981, producing a series of interesting though often bad records influenced by contemporary pop until his death in 1991, at 65.)