Don Cheadle flails about trying to channel the spirit of late jazz-trumpeting legend Miles Davis in “Miles Ahead,” a biopic that rejects typical genre conventions to the point of chasing itself down lame, tangential paths. A passion project for its star, who also directed, co-wrote and co-produced the feature, this portrait aims for insight by striving to match its own form to that of its subject’s music, whose inspired improvisational tunes repeatedly defined the course of modern jazz. A wild, and wildly uneven, free-form investigation of Davis’ turbulent personal and professional life that’s bolstered by an outsized lead performance, the film — premiering as the closing-night selection of this year’s New York Film Festival — is set to open next year through Sony Classics, though its all-over-the-place style will temper mainstream theatrical interest.
Eschewing the cause-and-effect pop-psychologizing of “Ray” and “Walk the Line” for the more experimental, impressionistic approach of last year’s James Brown pic “Get On Up” (or Clint Eastwood’s “Bird”), Cheadle’s maiden directorial effort doesn’t bother with Davis’ upbringing in St. Louis, nor his early days breaking into the New York jazz scene. Rather, it opens with a quote, and then blink-and-you’ll-miss-it footage of Davis in the studio, before settling in with the artist as he gives an interview to reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), during which he immediately admonishes the journalist to ditch his “corny” Walter Cronkite shtick and “come with some attitude.”
Wearing giant sunglasses and one of his many flamboyant open-collared shirts, his hair in a frizzy afro and his mouth constantly pulling on a cigarette, Cheadle’s Davis has attitude to spare. So, too, does “Miles Ahead,” which shortly thereafter abruptly bang-cuts to a frenetic car chase in which Davis leaps from a vehicle amid gunfire, and then to the trumpeter in his New York apartment at some ill-defined period in the ’70s. It’s there that Davis has reclusively retreated for what would become a dark stretch of medical problems, drug use and creative inertia that nearly derailed his career and life.
How Davis came to be in this sorry Howard Hughes-likes state is left frustratingly unexplained here. Instead, scored to the jazzman’s moody, eclectic, virtuosic songs, and visualized via clunky bobbing-and-weaving camerawork (an apparent tip of the cap to Davis’ fondness for pugilist Jack Johnson), Cheadle’s film goes about attuning itself to Davis’ wavelength, which — blurred by pain from a nagging hip, and clouded by habitual cocaine use — is all over the place. That’s true even before he’s approached at home by Braden, a flouncy-haired, corduroy-jacket-wearing stranger who claims to be a Rolling Stone reporter assigned (by the magazine, and by Davis’ label, Columbia) to pen a “comeback” article about the star’s return to the spotlight — an encore Davis himself hasn’t yet scheduled.
The duo’s introductory fisticuffs set the stage for the ensuing action, which finds Davis and Braden pairing up to confront the musician’s Columbia bosses for royalty money. That showdown culminates with Davis shooting at a shady A&R man and sneering at a young trumpeter (Lakeith Lee Stanfield) whose producer, Harper (Michael Stuhlbarg), wants to help Davis rediscover his former glory. It’s amid this confrontation’s threats and insults that the narrative’s reveals its nominal MacGuffin: a new, completed session tape that Davis prizes even more dearly than his drugs, and which everyone else is intent on acquiring for profit-driven reasons.
Davis’ attempts to protect, and later recover, his latest recordings form the story’s skeleton, upon which Cheadle (working with co-screenwriter Steven Baigelman) layers all sorts of fragments from the trumpeter’s life. Those come in quick, jagged bursts, with editors John Axelrad and Kayla M. Emter tethering the past and the present through a deft montage structure in which certain incidents (the sight of narcotics, the sound of a melody) spur memories of bygone days. That mosaic-like cutting is often enlivening, evoking Davis’ go-anywhere-at-any-moment compositions, as well as suggesting the sinuous trails the mind takes when tunneling into deep, painful recesses.
Whether limping about the ’70s with Braden in tow, or looking clean and sharp in the ’50s in a snappy suit on nightclub stage, Cheadle embodies Davis with larger-than-life cocksure swagger. Replicating Davis’ raspy voice and equally discordant personality, the actor captures the man’s arrogant defiance and animus toward racial discrimination. Moreover, he evokes how the bruised romanticism of his music was, for a time, profoundly rooted in his love for first wife Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a dancer who gave up her career to marry him, and whose face adorned his 1961 album “Some Day My Prince Will Come.”
“Miles Ahead” details their relationship in flashbacks sparked by the constant appearance of that LP’s cover. Throughout these sequences, Cheadle refuses to sentimentalize the ugly Davis behavior that led to their union’s collapse, including threesomes, substance abuse, domestic violence, and a domineering, patriarchal belief in female subservience. Nonetheless, they’re the film’s weakest elements, in large part because, despite Corinealdi’s luminous turn, Frances has been conceived in only two dull dimensions — an angelic object of Davis’ affection, who gazes at him lovingly while giving him a candlelight sponge bath; or an unhappy, oppressed spouse compelled to finally fight back and flee — which renders their central affair the stuff of hoary cliches.
Although Davis’ infamous 1959 arrest outside New York’s Birdland nightclub makes the script’s helter-skelter cut, biographical sticklers will bristle at Cheadle’s many omissions. The film skims past the artist’s rise to prominence alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie, cursorily dramatizes his partnership with Gil Evans, and outright ignores his groundbreaking rock-jazz fusion work (including 1970’s “Bitches Brew” double LP) — not to mention, save for an end-credits concert performance featuring Davis’ real-life collaborator Herbie Hancock, his popular and profitable ’80s output. “Miles Ahead’s” refusal to engage in note-by-note biography mirrors Davis’ nonconformist creativity. Yet such omissions leave it feeling hopelessly scattershot. That impression is only furthered by the plot’s persistent, mounting focus on Davis and Braden’s gun-toting, tire-squealing adventure trying to retrieve his stolen session tapes from the cartoonishly villainous Harper — a thread that turns the proceedings into an awkward buddy caper along the lines of “Lethal Weapon,” minus the thrills or laughs.
Perhaps this inapt detour in genre hijinks is Cheadle’s way of paying tribute to Davis’ guest-starring role on a 1985 episode of “Miami Vice.” Regardless, it eventually occupies so much of the 100-minute running time that “Miles Ahead” loses itself in insipid, directionless riffs. And in the process, it foils the film’s attempts to convey, much less contextualize, Davis as the pioneering genius that’s suggested by its taken-from-his-1957-album title.