Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s recent, feverishly imagined treatment of the lost years of Miles Davis, is a movie full of beautiful trumpet sounds: bending blue notes, puffs of self-ironizing loneliness, jubilant noise runs, and savagely abstract displacements of air. But the most beautiful of the lot—which is to say, the most eerily and inexpressibly Milesian—is barely a trumpet sound at all. It’s the sound Miles (played by Cheadle) makes when he picks up the mouthpiece, just the mouthpiece, of his long-idle instrument. It’s 1979, and Miles has been in a bad way for a while: musically inactive, coked-out, doldrum-bound, and lurking in the basement of his brownstone on the Upper West Side. But now, after years of silence, he is thinking about playing again. His muse, shaggy from a long solitude, is stirring. So he picks up the mouthpiece of his trumpet and blows through it, pffft!, clearing out the devils and the dried spit, preparing to repressurize his own interior. And somehow, in the sound he makes—curt but sacramental, a rasp of pure musical energy, before melody, before anything—is supernaturally disclosed the entire creative dimension of Miles Davis. At that moment, it feels—it tastes—like the sound he’s been trying to get to all his life.
Think about Miles Davis, try to hold him in your head for a minute, and you experience a kind of galvanic squiggle across the imagination, like the fingertip signature of some higher-voltage being. The sounds and images will not stay still, extremes of cool alternating with zaps of profane energy. The immaculate apprentice on Charlie Parker’s bandstand in the 1940s segues into the withered extraterrestrial of his 1980s comeback. And the mystical mood engineer of 1959’s Kind of Blue (cleaned up after junkiedom, with John Coltrane at his side) evaporates before the scowling noise addict of the mid-1970s, leaning on the keys of an organ with a misanthropic elbow. “I have to change,” Miles once said. “It’s like a curse.” And indeed there was something hexed or pursued about his unstoppable evolutions. Futurity coursed through him, through his art, a continual superhuman crackle. It might be said that he sacrificed his nervous system to it not once but two or three times, recording these and other losses in trumpet lines that strike the ear, to quote the critic Lester Bangs, “like shots of distilled passion.”