The musician biopic might be stale and stupid as a genre, but it will endure. Each new one offers the possibility of the wondrous thing that made Hollywood into Hollywood: presence. You can guess from the trailers that I Saw the Light might be a botch job as drama, but what other chance does our media culture offer you to kill a night with the handsome embodiment of the myth of Hank Williams? Don Cheadle's new film starts much more promisingly.
Set in that bad patch of the late ’70s when Miles Davis didn't much bother leaving his brownstone, Miles Ahead is named for the first of the trumpeter's epochal collaborations with arranger Gil Evans, from 1957. But a more accurate title might have come from the brace of casually brilliant records Davis knocked out with his first great quintet a year earlier: Steamin' With the Miles Davis Quintet. Relaxin' With the Miles Davis Quintet. To his credit, Cheadle (who directed, co-wrote and stars) chucks away everything false about the standard biopic — the redemptive story arcs, the flashes of corny inspiration, the reduction of complex lives to signifiers — and instead goes all-in on his subject's prickly, elusive presence. This could have been named Hangin' With Miles.
Both of Davis' quintets show up, in flashbacks, as do Evans and producer Teo Macero. The film's heart, though, is in the basement of Davis' brownstone, where one of the handful of geniuses of 20th-century music snorts coke, works his heavy punching bag and waits out the (literal and figurative) disco party raging upstairs. He’s exhausted, maybe depressed, certainly disappointed — in himself and in a world that has failed to keep up with him. Cheadle plays him as cocksure but gun-shy, brooding but bored — some flame in him has been snuffed. Still, even guttered, Davis fascinates, and Cheadle's tender eyes and scraped-raw whisper prove reason enough for Davis fans to give Miles Ahead a go: Just often enough, I thought, “Holy shit, this is what a day with Miles might feel like.”
The movie never presumes to declare just why Davis spent a half decade in seclusion. It hints at causes. Sometimes, Davis' attention slackens and the film vaults into his past: to recording sessions for Porgy & Bess, to Polaroid-shot encounters with groupies, to the day in ’59 when a cop brained and arrested him for loitering in front of Birdland, even when his name was lit up on the marquee. Key to all these memories is Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), the ballerina and Broadway star who married Davis in 1958. (She's on the covers of Someday My Prince Will Come, from 1961, and the elliptical marvel E.S.P., from ’65.) Early flashbacks celebrate her dancing, kick at the racism of the uptown arts world and — in a scene of strong, earthy passion — honor these icons' lovemaking.
History demands that Miles Ahead move on from that reverie, and soon, with too little context, we see Davis turn controlling, paranoid and violent toward her. Davis in these moments is as haunted as he is terrified, with a hint in his eyes that he might be scared of himself, too. Too many of these biopics give us too many extended scenes of the stars at their worst, as if this adds to our understanding, but Miles Ahead possibly gives us too few: The moments are binary, strictly Happy or Heartbreaking, and only hazily connected, with too little sense of the day-to-day drift of Taylor and Davis' lives together.
The other clue to Davis' retirement might be that title. By ’78, when the film takes place, Miles Ahead was 20 years old, yet all the world seemed to want from Davis at the time was more music of that vintage — or new music that echoed it. Cheadle smartly depicts an artist who can't fathom looking back. (Those flashbacks are about what he and Frances felt in his era of greatest popularity, not “that old shit” he recorded.) Occasionally, when nudged outside his house, Cheadle's Davis meets fans who feel left behind by ’70s albums like Agharta or Dark Magus, the sprawling, squalling, beastly beauties Davis recorded with his last bands before semi-retirement. This seems to bewilder him. Miles was still ahead, so far that many still haven't caught up in 2016. Why wouldn't he take a few years off and wait us out?
Unfortunately, movies are more expensive to create than ’70s jazz records, and Cheadle, a first-time feature director, isn't afforded the same freedom that Davis had won. Miles Ahead feels compromised by some commercial decisions: Ewan McGregor turns up as an eager-beaver reporter who turns out to be the catalyst to return Davis to the daylight. Both actors manage good work in their scenes together, but the character feels like an imposition from the outset, and Cheadle edges the film into stagey, unconvincing buddy comedy, with Davis and his new pal caught up in gunfights and car chases with goons hired by a Columbia Records exec. The worst of these scenes plays out like Adventures in Babysitting: Miles Davis Edition.
Occasionally, the script seems to suggest that Davis is learning a thing or two from this white boy, but Cheadle the performer is too protective of his subject to let that happen, and he mostly maintains the trumpeter’s infamous implacability. A sequence of musician and reporter alone in Davis' basement, in something like a drugged-out interview session, develops some power, but the film's climax is cartoonish — and it does nothing to suggest any answers to the second great mystery of Davis' ’70s hiatus: Why did he come back to performing? And how did the Dark Prince of Agharta and that A+ freakout Jack Johnson come to record pretty-as-you-please prog pop with Toto?
Possible hook for the inevitable next Miles Davis movie: the cross-country road trip he took with Charles Mingus and Max Roach in 1952, during which Davis (as per his autobiography) threatened to break a bottle over Mingus' head to shut him up.