When do you come in?
I’m in there.
Well, about the worst thing Cheadle could have done with this movie is play it safe. And he very definitely didn’t. In this film, Cheadle directs and stars as iconoclastic musician/genius Miles Davis. This film first got seriously rumored back in 2006 and there were rumbles before that as far as a movie that didn’t include Cheadle, so I’ve been waiting a long time for this movie. Is it a good biopic of Davis? No. Is it a woozy, weird, trippy masterpiece on its own terms? Yes, I think so. This movie isn’t trying to be an actual biopic and I’ll explain just how much it’s not. The film has a frame story and then several flashbacks to earlier in Davis’ career throughout the film. In the frame story, it’s 1979 and an addled Davis and an intrepid Rolling Stone reporter (played wittily and warmly by Ewan McGregor) are trying to steal back a tape of Davis that was stolen from him by an unethical record executive (played to the hilt by a Joaquin Phoenix channeling Michael Stuhlbarg). That entire frame story, which takes up most of the film? Didn’t happen. Has no basis in fact. Was entirely fabricated because, according to the creative minds behind the film, they wanted to basically make a heist film with Miles Davis as a character. Is this crazy? Yes. Does it work? Oh, yes. So, I’m not entirely sure just how accurate the flashbacks are, though they’re more rooted in fact that the frame story. But it’s a great experience. Obviously, it’s less a biopic of Miles Davis (or even a movie about Miles Davis) and more just a druggy, crazy movie that has Miles Davis in it as a character. That’s bizarre, but it works. Cheadle’s direction is weird and diffuse, jumping time periods in fuzzy flashes that occasionally even let people from different time periods co-exist briefly in the same shot or the same scene. It’s a great performance from Cheadle too, maybe his best to date; he resists caricature and he plays Davis pretty minimally and gives us some wonderful moments of silence where you can actually see the pain of the character, see Davis as a person, not an icon. Emayatzy Corinealdi gives a star making and sexy performance as Frances Taylor, Davis’ muse and first wife. Keith Stanfield gives a brilliant performance as a young trumpet player in the frame story, desperate to play for Miles, caught in the middle of the bizarre heist hijinks. Stanfield was brilliant in Short Term 12 in a supporting role and I mentioned him specially in my Straight Outta Compton review for his unbelievably accurate version of Snoop Dogg, an appearance that lasted only a couple of minutes, but really knocked me out. It’s way past time for Stanfield to break big; he’s great in this. The flaws of the film are evident in the flashback scenes; in those scenes, the film adheres to the usual biopic beats: drug use, domestic abuse, paranoia, persecution, etc. But the film as a whole is invigorating and entertaining. No, this film doesn’t touch Davis’ music in terms of genius; it doesn’t quite reach the heights of other music biopics like Walk the Line and Love & Mercy. But it’s going for something; it’s being bold; it’s genuinely brilliant much of the time. I won’t say Davis would have loved it (with that guy, who knows?), but I’ll say that I did. 4 stars.
tl;dr – invigorating exploration of Miles Davis isn’t at all a traditional biopic, but it’s the iconoclastic, weird nature of the film that comes closest to capturing the spirit of Davis. 4 stars.