It’s early in the year, yes, but I’m ready to put forth Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead as a strong contender for best film of 2016. I certainly can’t imagine it not making the top five. Yes, it’s really that good, and that’s why it’s not going to be “for everyone” — thank goodness. The poster’s tag line, “If you gotta tell a story, come with some attitude,” is dead on the money, because Miles Ahead has attitude to spare in its screenplay (which Cheadle co-authored with Steven Baigelman), in Cheadle’s directing, and in Cheadle’s performance as Miles Davis. In every aspect, this is a film that is overflowing with life and creativity.
Bear in mind that I do not — as many are wont to do — look down on the biopic. I understand that Cheadle — not unreasonably — rejects the term biopic. And, well, The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) or Walk the Line (2005) this isn’t. Sure, there are lousy ones and there are some deadly academic ones — something that could be said of every genre — but, at its best, the biopic can fly as high as any other. And I haven’t been this blown away by a biopic since the 1970s. This is filmmaking. Cheadle has not attempted any sort of cradle-to-the-grave work. Instead, he focuses on the period of time right after Davis’ five-year absence from the music scene — an approach that affords a wild, and fantasticated, framing story involving a MacGuffin tape recording, a duplicitous manager (Michael Stuhlbarg), a quasi-Rolling Stone reporter who turns driver, sidekick, and confidante to Davis (Ewan McGregor in his best role since The Ghost Writer in 2010), and plenty of room for flashbacks.
It’s almost two movies in one, except neither could really exist without the other. The admittedly over-the-top and contrived — but very entertaining — framing story affords the film a shape on which to hang the more free-form flashbacks. Those who are more fancifully minded may be inclined to think of aspects of the flashbacks as jazz riffs. It is — or should be — obvious early on that Cheadle isn’t interested in offering us The Miles Davis Story but in giving us a combination of a shaggy-dog adventure yarn — with perhaps something of Davis as he was seen by the public — and a marvelous portrait, but not a story, of the man and his music.
Cheadle himself has been somewhat cagey about the film, saying, “There were wall-to-wall facts in that movie. They’re all jumbled around, but it’s truthful front to back.” There’s a core of truth to that, yes, but it might be better to say that Miles Ahead is more true in spirit than in fact — and that’s just fine. Without being able to prove it, I have a hunch this is a movie that its subject might well have enjoyed — both as the work of someone who “gets him” and as a wild ride, with Davis as a seemingly burned-out, cocaine-fueled, quasi-badass who can’t help peer out of that guise and let us know that he understands far more than the gun-waving, unfocused, belligerent character suggests.
I am not going to attempt to delve into the story much more than I have. I’ll say that much of what happens is grounded by Davis’ loss of his wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzi Corinealdi), when she left him after years of abuse, philandering, and even forcing her to abandon her own art in the service to his. This is the thrust that drives both the flashbacks and much of the rest of the film. But that’s not so much the point of the film, nor the reason for its greatness and that of the beautiful, sad, ferocious performance of its star that rests at its center.