Opens today at Dole Cannery Stadium 18 and Kahala 8
Is it easier to create a brilliant, mesmerizing performance than to write and direct a film that convincingly contains it? Based on the evidence presented by “Miles Ahead,” the answer would have to be yes.
A biographical drama centering on a handful of periods in the life of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, this valentine to jazz in all its forms stars Don Cheadle in arguably the best performance of his decadeslong career, as vibrant a portrait of a difficult, passionate, committed creative artist as anyone could wish for.
Cheadle has been noticeably less successful, however, as the project’s director and co-writer (along with Steven Baigelman). Though it starts out promisingly as an attempt at fragmented, free-form narrative, “Miles Ahead” puzzlingly devolves into the cliche territory of a heist plot, the equivalent of having Glenn Gould involved in a smash-and-grab robbery.
In fact, the sophistication gap between the character Cheadle has created and the film that contains him is so great it begins to feel like you’re watching two different stories that have been unaccountably spliced together.
The first Davis we meet is the established legend of the 1980s, an old lion with a lot of bite being interviewed on camera by a nervous, unseen journalist in “Miles Ahead’s” framing device.
With his halo of hair, constant smoking, extravagant clothes, impenetrable shades and raspy voice, Cheadle not only looks and sounds like Davis, he also re-creates his persona, the man’s sharp temper and the keen, impatient intelligence that suffered fools not at all.
Before we can get comfortable with this setup, a trumpet blast from Davis tosses us into the middle of a car chase, with the musician fleeing for unknown reasons from an unseen man who appears to be shooting to kill.
Then we move with equal speed to a very different Davis than the one in the framing device. The year is 1979, and the trumpeter, called “the Howard Hughes of jazz,” is living a reclusive life in New York, using drugs and behaving like a law unto himself.
It’s been five years since Davis put out a record, and it’s rumored that he has new material on tape. His label, Columbia, wants to hear it, but Davis is in no hurry to hand it over. What he is interested in is the $20,000 he feels Columbia owes him.
Inserting himself into this morass is a brash, venal, all-around irritating freelance journalist named Dave Braden (a wasted Ewan McGregor) who worms his way into Davis’ house and insinuates himself into his life, agreeing to drive him to Columbia to demand his money and then helping him score drugs.
The latest iteration of the journalist-befriends-genius trope — last seen with David Foster Wallace in “The End of the Tour” — this relationship is both tedious and difficult to believe.
While at Columbia, Davis catches a glimpse of the cover of one of his classic albums, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” a cover that features a photograph of his first wife and muse, Frances Taylor. That glimpse triggers a series of flashbacks going back to the late 1950s and 1960s and detailing the musician’s relationship with Taylor, a classical dancer whom Davis fell instantly and madly in love with.
Impeccably played by Emayatzy Corinealdi (who was just as good in Ava Duvernay’s “Middle of Nowhere”), Taylor is, besides Davis, the only fully realized character in the film, and the pleasures and terrors of their relationship are never without interest.
Unfortunately, that strand has to share screen time with both the journalist and a ridiculous storyline about a scheme to steal Davis’ tape. That plotline involves sleazy record producer Hamilton Harper (Michael Stuhlbarg, also wasted) and a young trumpet prodigy and Davis doppelganger named Junior (Lakeith Lee Stanfield, memorable in “Short Term 12”).
Cheadle’s performance as Davis, a complex, driven man who could be violently destructive to the people around him but was always looking to take the music further, stands tall in all of this, even when the plot contrivances start to pile up like so much disposable material.
Also always a pleasure is Davis’ exceptional music, played by the master but convincingly acted by Cheadle. With compositions such as “Nefertiti” and “So What” forming the ever-present soundtrack to this complicated life, we hope, often in vain, that what we see will be matched in grace by what we hear.