Don Cheadle writes, directs and stars in this stylish, fast-paced biopic of jazz genius Miles Davis.
The movie starts with Davis working on a comeback album after taking a break from his career in the late 1970s. Under a cloud of drugs and the weight of being Miles Davis, he has become an eccentric recluse, “jazz’s Howard Hughes” as one reporter calls him early on.
Miles wants to get paid for his new sessions, even though he hasn’t turned them in to the record company yet. Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) shows up at his door one day looking for an interview about his comeback. Davis has Braden drive him to the record company where there is a confrontation about his payment for the comeback session. Braden lurks at the edge of all the action, taking it all in and quickly realizes the way to get in Davis’s good graces in by hooking him up with some drugs. A few hours after meeting, Braden has Davis in a dorm room signing a few records in exchange for cocaine. So it’s clear Davis is at a low point.
Cheadle’s performance as Miles Davis is excellent. He’s such a great actor, it’s easy to take what he does here for granted. But as the story shows Davis at various points in his career, notice Cheadle’s subtle changes. In the late-50s Kind of Blue era scenes, his eyes are brighter and his voice is younger than comeback-era Davis. It’s all in Cheadle’s acting.
The story is framed around his comeback attempt but Cheadle, who pulls double duty as director, masterfully jumps around the timeline of Davis’s life. It’s clear he’s emulating the free-flowing nonlinear style of jazz, and he does it so well. Sometimes the transitions are visual, sometimes they’re musical, but they always make sense and we never get lost. The story is all over the place in time, but like a great jazz record, it flows together. The flashbacks inform and are connected to the current narrative. We don’t get any of those sudden smash cut flashbacks we see so often in a biopic.
Telling a story like this in this way takes a talented director. And as excellent as Cheadle’s acting performance as Miles Davis is, his direction here may be even better. The only possible criticism is that with such a fascinating real-life character, the movie could have been an in-depth epic, more true to life, instead of a series of impressionist flashes. But that’s a choice, not a shortcoming, and there’s no doubt Cheadle achieved what he set out to do. It’s incredible that this is his directorial debut.
The last shot of the movie, which features Davis in performance during his 1980 comeback, contains a reference to something he said in the first shot of the movie. You see it, realize what it is and wonder how that can be. It jars you from the scene, makes you consider what you’re watching and what it means. This movie is a real work of art.
|Writer||Steven Baigelman, Don Cheadle|
|Starring||Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor|
|Production||Sony Pictures Classics, Bifrost Pictures, Miles Davis Properties,IM Global, Sobini Films, Yellowsaw Productions, Crescendo Productions, Naked City Films|