All film genres are by definition codified and formatted to fit audience expectations. These codes and formats may evolve in accordance with cultural shifts and technological breakthroughs, but the base assumptions behind them remain largely the same. Yet the biopic is perhaps the genre where codification is the most obvious and therefore the least tolerable; regardless of how familiar or not we may be with the depicted people, it’s inherently frustrating to see the same pattern of plot beats show up over and over again because we know that life is never that predictable. This is particularly true of musical biopics, which are generally conceived as vulgarization enterprises seeking to please both fans and novices. Thus in lieu of examining the emotions, knowledge and experience of life expressed by an artist’s work, most of them content themselves with explaining the art away through a bullet-point list of tragic childhood stories, decisive career moments, song montages, domestic troubles and redemptive endings.
How invigorating it is, then, to see Don Cheadle spend an entire movie subverting this formula and critiquing its underlying ideology. Using an entirely fictional heist story set at the end of Miles Davis’s 5-year retirement and seclusion, Miles Ahead celebrates the intangibility of genius all while satirizing the very cultural forces responsible for its simplification.
On paper, its premise – which sees Davis reluctantly team up with fanboy Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) to retrieve an unreleased recording from the hands of unscrupulous Columbia exec Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg) – plays out like the kind of self-insert fanfiction art geeks write to validate their own opinions, and to a certain extent it does: Dave gets to hang out with his idol, get drunk and snort coke with him and even get private confessions about his personal failings out of him. But although they claim different motivations, both he and Hamilton crave Davis’s tape – and therefore symbolic ownership of his legacy. Because Brill refuses to acknowledge that truth, his earnest goodwill earns him only superficial rewards. Instead of congratulating fans for their knowledge and taste, Cheadle and his co-screenwriters turn their madcap scenario into a self-critical challenge that asks us to reconsider our relationship with art we love. Already welcome in an age where so-called “geek culture” encourages consumerist entitlement towards creative media, this message is doubly relevant as a rebuke to the commercial processing of art that conventional Hollywood biopics – even good ones such as Walk The Line or Straight Outta Compton – are inevitably guilty of.
This subversion extends to the film’s structure and style; Cheadle gives the impression of partial adherence to the biopic formula by punctuating his narrative with extensive flashbacks chronicling Davis’s marriage to dancer Frances Taylor (a fantastic Emayatzy Corinealdi) but resists their implicit call to psychoanalyze his music. Although frequently summoned, via match-cuts, by diegetic reminders of past moments, they offer no clear-cut insights on how these moments shaped his unique craft. Instead, they come to us as unexpected brushstrokes, painting the ever-changing portrait of a complicated man lost in the maze of his own impulses. Cheadle is less interested in faithfully documenting facts of Miles Davis’s life and art than he is in illustrating the immediate emotions communicated by them.
Consider, for instance, Davis’s first meeting with Frances, on a nocturnal New York street which, in DOP Roberto Schaefer’s gentle light, looks like a set for a 1950s romantic drama. Observe how deftly the staging underlines Miles’ schoolboyish uneasiness and its contrast with Frances’ poise. By expressing his characters’ foremost feelings through visual artifice, Cheadle gives himself and his co-star more space to work between the lines of a relationship where silences, smiles and awkwardly-phrased I-Love-Yous speak louder and cut deeper than screams, tears and kisses. Within that space, Emayatzy Corinealdi emerges as a remarkably subtle and intuitive actress; as a dancer, her Frances Taylor sees and reacts to the world primarily through her body – her struggles with Miles’s drug abuse, infidelities, possessiveness and violence (which the film portrays as mutual) take on a strangely poetic form, as if her human form was engaged in a constant battle to affirm its own existence in a world dictated by pure mood.
As Miles Davis himself, Don Cheadle demonstrates exemplary restraint and perceptiveness. Consistent with the respectful distance of his directorial choices, his physical rendition of the Prince of Darkness’s persona gracefully walks the line between man and mystique. His voice crackles from decades of trumpet-blowing and cigarette-smoking, but conveys more weariness than wisdom. He’s both cruel and tender, selfish and open, sometimes cool, sometimes grotesque, sometimes pitiable, but never self-indulgent. Always skirting the edges of the tormented artist archetype without quite fitting in it, his Miles Davis is a human embodiment of the energy and pain contained within his music. It’s rare for a big-name actor to show such humility as the star of their own directorial debut, especially when playing so prestigious a role.
In a genre thoroughly dominated by middlebrow academicism, Miles Ahead’s insolent bravado is a breath of fresh air. Because Don Cheadle recognizes genius’s natural resistance to explanation and interpretation, his portrayal of Miles Davis feels more authentic than most Oscar-nominated biographies ever do. Unconstrained by the obligations of traditional structure, expected narrative stop-offs acquire new life of their own and help the characters break out of the predefined boxes they have unwittingly built for themselves. One can only hope that Cheadle’s achievement inspires the entire musical biopic subgenre to do the same.
Dir: Don Cheadle.
Scr: Don Cheadle, Steven Baigleman, Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson.
Cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Keith Stanfield, Michael Stuhlbarg
Prd: Don Cheadle, Robert Ogden Barnum, Pamela Hirsch, Darryl Porter, Daniel Wagner, Vince Wilburn Jr., Lenore Zerman
DOP: Roberto Schaefer
Editing: John Axelrad, Kayla Emter
Music: Robert Glasper
Running time: 100 min
Miles Ahead is in cinemas now.