Short Takes: Miles Ahead

(Don Cheadle, U.S., 2015)

Bad musical biopics pose a threat when their mythologies take hold in popular consciousness. There should be no danger of that with Don Cheadle’s flimsily conceived Miles Davis passion project, which never lingers in the mind long enough to do the music much damage.

The opening scene makes no promises of insight, dropping us into an SNL caricature in which the middle-aged icon rattles off one-liners in a crotchety rasp. It’s momentarily enjoyable as a showcase for one of Hollywood’s most charismatic and underappreciated actors. But the loose narrative that emerges around the performance does neither star nor subject any favors.

Only intermittently flashing back to the trumpeter’s glory days as a master of cool, Miles Ahead focuses on his drug-addled seclusion in New York in the 1970s. This savvy move enables Cheadle to highlight Davis’s contemporary relevance: free of the trappings of jazz traditionalism, the artist’s public downfall is reimagined as label-flouting heroism.

The film is undone not by its interpretation of Davis’s legacy but by its caper plot, in which a hapless journalist (Ewan McGregor) gets entangled in the chase for a missing session tape. As more characters are trotted out, a shade of irony is inadvertently thrown on Davis’s oft-repeated notion of “social music.” Far from evoking jazz’s communal ecstasies, Miles Ahead prompts us to ask how a genius could attract so many boring people into his orbit.