IT'S HARD TO DISLIKE Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle's free-form biopic of Miles Davis. Everyone likes Miles Davis! Everyone likes Don Cheadle! And it's a welcome experience to see a biopic that breaks away from the rusty clichés that now define the genre—these days, most biopics are more useful as tranquilizers. (Sorry, The Theory of Everything. Sorry, The Imitation Game. Sorry, The Danish Girl. You [barely] get a pass, Straight Outta Compton.)
Miles Ahead tries something different: Skipping over the biggest moments in Davis' life—the ones people going to see a movie about Davis will likely expect to see—the film offers a narrative that skips back and forth in time, focusing more on establishing Davis as a character rather than as as a historical figure and musical genius. In addition to writing and directing, Cheadle also plays Davis, and from the opening frames ("Don't call my music jazz," he says. "It's social music"), it's clear this is a passion project. Cheadle is in this role, and like the best Cheadle characters, Davis is never anything less than fascinating.
Which is where things get tricky: With a whole lot of fictionalized add-ons and unnecessary costars (like Ewan McGregor's desperate—and imaginary—partner in crime/Rolling Stone reporter), Miles Ahead never feels predictable, but it also never feels reliable. Nobody goes into any feature film expecting watertight accuracy, but as Miles Ahead bounces across entirely made-up plot points, it's all but impossible not to wonder how much truth is actually here.
The answer: Not nearly as much as Miles Ahead would have you believe, even as Cheadle anchors Davis in a troubled period (when Miles Ahead begins, Davis is little more than a ghost, lurking beneath the shadows of Birth of the Cool and Sketches of Spain) and even as McGregor characterizes Davis as "jazz's Howard Hughes." There are nice touches here—particularly when Cheadle, as a director, gets a little bit surreal—but the end result can't help but feel scattered and aimless. All that said: Cheadle is still a pleasure to watch, Davis' music is still a pleasure to hear, and given the bland biopic alternative, I'll take the verve and enthusiasm of Miles Ahead any day.