‘And I’m the asshole,’ Don Cheadle croaks disbelievingly at a bunch of record label execs. He’s playing trumpeter Miles Davis during his reclusive late-1970s ‘lost years’ and the argument concerns royalties. Davis has brought a gun to the office and fired it at an A&R man, so actually, maybe he is the asshole.
That sense of conflicted personality – raw and comic – makes ‘Miles Ahead’ an adventurous directorial debut for Cheadle. But channelling Miles Davis’s defiance has its pitfalls. Explosive exchanges between Cheadle and Ewan McGregor (playing a fictional Rolling Stone journalist looking for a scoop) or Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), the dancer who gave up her career to be Davis’s wife, are all well and good. But a detour into car-chase sequences and action scenes, seriously? ‘Miles Ahead’ also consciously imitates the blaxploitation era of ‘Shaft’ and ‘Super Fly’ – which in places feels hallucinatory, in others silly.
Cheadle is so good as the enigmatic Davis – soulful, wounded, outspoken – that you wonder if a more traditionally structured jazz biopic might have been a better showcase for what’s obviously a labour of love. But that wouldn’t be Miles enough. The film borrows more than just the title of the revolutionary artist’s 1957 album. It delves deep into restless creativity, ugly racism and the still-thrilling spectacle of the Birth of the Cool. The movie is a big dare. Add several more stars to this rating if that’s your bag, as it was for Davis himself.