Movie Review: “Miles Ahead”


Anyone expecting the buttoned-down Miles Davis from the late-’50s/early-’60s period, the days with John Coltrane as his tenor sax player and Gil Evans as his arranger on larger works, is in for a big shock with the era selected by director Don Cheadle for this long-anticipated Davis biopic. It’s the late ’70s, and Davis hasn’t played live in a while. Some interested parties want to know: What’s he been up to lately?

A Rolling Stone freelancer comes knocking on the door of Miles’ NYC apartment to find out and gets punched in the nose by the jazz trumpet legend before he can explain why he’s here. It’s an angrier, freakier, long-haired version of Miles Davis he’s faced with, rather than that guy in the Brooks Brothers suit, lighting a cigarette on various LP sleeves. The only vestige from quieter days is Miles’ raspy speaking voice, the result of not maintaining a period of silence after minor throat surgery. As if.

Davis (Cheadle) drags Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) inside, and the hapless journalist is immediately dragooned into service as Miles’ driver/flunky to help him recover a large can of tape from a recent studio session that’s fallen into the wrong hands. It’s a big deal, since Miles apparently hasn’t recorded in years, and various greedy record-industry types look upon this as his possible “big comeback.” Lots of crockery is broken when Miles’ sweetie/LP cover girl Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) enters the picture, giving the story, at times, an updated ’50s sitcom kind of feel. Everything but the rolling-pin on the noggin.

Davis, whose quintet/sextet releases with either Coltrane or Wayne Shorter on tenor, as well as his epic 19-piece, big-band excursions charted by Evans, serve as undeniable proof the trumpet legend always had his ears open for the next big move. His quintet headlined a few Fillmore gigs in the early ’70s for Bill Graham, with the Grateful Dead relegated to the under card. All that aside, Miles Ahead—its title taken from a superb 1957 collaboration with Evans that has Davis playing flugelhorn rather than trumpet—flew by like the midnight express. It will remain imbedded in your brain like that mesmerizing, nine- and 10-note riff from Kind Of Blue‘s “So What.” Anyone with a whit of interest in Davis’ career would miss this movie at his or her own peril.

—Jud Cost