When he's locked in, Don Cheadle has more raw wattage than any other screen actor I can think of. He broke into the business in 1995 via the criminally underrated Denzel Washington noir Devil in a Blue Dress with an audition tape that has become Hollywood legend. (Google it.)
Miles Ahead, the Miles Davis biopic Cheadle's been shepherding for more than a decade, is a fascinating bookend to that audition tape. It's his baby all the way—he co-writes, directs, and plays the title role—and it's as much a testament to his journey through the Hollywood system as it is a tribute to Davis.
Miles Ahead announces Cheadle as a formidable filmmaker who's not afraid to break rules. In fact, his biopic of the great jazz innovator isn't really a biopic at all. It's an impressionistic caper movie, largely fabricated, set during Davis's fallow period in the late seventies, when he got serious about his drugs and stopped making music altogether.
Ewan McGregor costars as a Rolling Stone journalist who accompanies Davis on a mad, entirely fictional crusade to recover stolen master tapes, a structure in which Cheadle can weave his impressions of the man and his music. Biographical details are inserted in flashbacks and carefully constructed scenes that illuminate Davis's creative genius and chaotic personal life. The crucial moments come in the spaces between the plot points.
Cheadle's bold storytelling crescendos in a frenzied finale. A shootout at a boxing match shifts into a concert scene, with Davis playing trumpet in the bloodied ring. Time bends and folds; past and present flicker until only the violent beauty of Davis's music remains. Cheadle's performance is, as usual, superb—he nails Davis's sinister, throaty rasp—and Emayatzy Corinealdi provides a critical counterpoint of sanity as Frances Taylor, Davis's wife and muse.
Miles Ahead opens with a quote from Davis: "If you're going to tell a story, come with some attitude, man." The same line pops up at the end, too: Cheadle is giving us the key to unlock his thrilling, unconventional film essay.
This article appeared in print with the headline "American Zen"