As I picked my jaw up off the floor and pressed my eyeballs back into their sockets after watching Don Cheadle's shockingly horrible new movie, I comforted myself with the thought that Miles Ahead was an anomaly. I told myself nothing else like it existed in the actor's body of work.
Then a painful memory I had repressed surfaced. This isn't the first time Cheadle has wasted his considerable talents playing a famous real-life performer in a real feces-fest of a film. Cheadle played Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1998 TV movie The Rat Pack. Absolutely ludicrous movie. That also applies to Miles Ahead.
For which a more appropriate title would have been Miles Davis: Action Hero. Seriously. Cheadle's a gifted performer with the range to handle any character, from a porn star obsessed with cowboy couture (Boogie Nights) to a Schindleresque hospitality professional who risks his life to save families on the wrong side of a genocidal coup (Hotel Rwanda). Telling the story of the jazz giant, however, turned out to be more than he could handle.
Clearly, this was a labor of love. Cheadle spent 10 years courting the Davis estate, cowriting the script with Steven Baigelman and studying his subject, graduating with a master's in Miles. So why is his directorial debut so flabbergastingly flat?
Cheadle has said he wanted to make a movie that Davis would've liked to star in. (Fun fact: The musical icon actually did guest-star in a 1985 episode of "Miami Vice"!) The star, cowriter, producer and director succeeds in shunning the traditional trappings of the genre, only to wallow in conventions far more corny and confusing.
The film bounces among the 1950s, '60s and '70s more or less haphazardly. The bulk of its 100-minute running time, however, is set in the '70s, during Davis' famous Howard Hughes-on-coke period. Miles Ahead opens with a black-and-white sequence of the nascent Miles in a nightclub performance, then clumsily cuts to that latter time frame and establishes the tone of a third-rate Steven Seagal shoot-'em-up.
Ewan McGregor costars as a Rolling Stone writer named Dave Brill. He seeks entrance to the music legend's fortress of solitude, his Upper West Side brownstone, to interview him about a comeback Davis hasn't even decided to make. Seemingly within moments of meeting, the two have engaged in a fist fight, teamed up to shake down Columbia Records brass for unpaid royalties, wound up in a car chase and sprayed the record company's offices with bullets. It's like a version of The End of the Tour with Hunter S. Thompson as both interviewer and subject.
In its time travels, the film touches on the musician's fraught first marriage and offers glimpses of Davis performing at different periods in different styles without the slightest context. It references a handful of classic recordings, such as Sketches of Spain, Someday My Prince Will Come and Kind of Blue, without providing even trace amounts of insight into how they came about or why they matter to this day.
Indeed, of the recent spate of musical biopics, Miles Ahead is easily the least insightful. Viewers will leave knowing nothing they didn't already know about the man or the music. Instead, they'll have watched Cheadle snort make-believe coke and attempted to care as he and a clearly incredulous McGregor drive fast and shoot to kill in pursuit of a made-up stolen reel of new Miles music.
Cheadle gives a convincing physical performance, looking and sounding eerily like Davis, but this is otherwise a confounding cartoon. The actor worked hard for the chance to bring his dream to the screen, but the bottom line is, he kind of blew it.