Capturing the essence of a great artist on film is always a risky business since most of the time the artistry is not easily dramatized. And when it is, too often what we get are hokey “Aha!” moments. Plenty of great writers, painters, and musicians enjoyed a rather boring day-to-day existence, so it’s no surprise that filmmakers tend to favor those tortured souls whose jagged lives light up the screen.
Just a few weeks ago, we had the uneven “Born to Be Blue,” starring Ethan Hawke as the vastly troubled jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. Now we have “Miles Ahead,” the equally uneven Miles Davis biopic directed and co-written by Don Cheadle, who also stars in it.
Cheadle and his co-screenwriter Steven Baigelman (who had a story credit on the 2014 James Brown biopic “Get On Up”) deal primarily with Davis’s life during the five-year gap in his recording career in the late 1970s, when, awash in drugs and suffering from a degenerative hip condition, he hid away in his New York brownstone. He had become, as the film puts it, “the Howard Hughes of jazz.”
The film’s conceit is that a rock journalist claiming to be on assignment from Rolling Stone manages to insinuate himself inside Davis’s inner precincts. Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) endures threats and a punch in the nose but manages, with the help of some cocaine connections, to gain cooperation from the jazz great. (Davis, ornery always, rejects the term “jazz” in favor of “social music.”)
To complicate matters, an unheard session tape of Davis’s, hidden away in his brownstone, becomes a prime lure not only for an unscrupulous record producer (Michael Stuhlbarg) but also for Braden, the discovery of which would cap his journalistic coup. Throughout these intrigues, memories are triggered in Davis’s fogbound mind, especially of his recording studio glory days and his ex-wife and muse, the dancer Frances Taylor (a fine Emayatzy Corinealdi).
“Miles Ahead” is obviously a labor of love, but it falls into the trap of so many biopics about anguished artists – it confuses the anguish with the artistry. A case could certainly be made that Davis’s greatness was achieved in spite of his demons, not because of them. As a writer-director, Cheadle spends so much time exhibiting Davis in various states of dissolution that his art becomes a sidelight to all the druggy thuggery on view. The flashbacks and the film’s curlicue narrative structure are meant to mimic Davis’s jazz improvisations, but too often they just come across as a jumble. Cheadle wants to create a jazzy movie about jazz, but he doesn’t have the chops for it.
He’s on steadier ground as an actor, giving Davis’s spooky, murmurous hostilities a keen edge. We can see how, even at his lowest ebb, Davis, on some astral plane of his own devising, is still keyed into the scene, still listening intently for sounds. A sequence in which he expounds on Chopin is a revelation. For Davis, music begins and ends with the soul.
Thankfully Cheadle utilizes actual tracks of Davis’s albums. So, although much of the film is ersatz, the music sure isn’t. You can go home afterward and groove on “Sketches of Spain” or “Milestones.” You can remind yourself once again that Hollywood may not often get it right, but the music survives, and that’s all that really matters. Grade: B- (This film is rated R for strong language throughout, drug use, some sexuality/nudity, and brief violence.)