Sometimes it seems like an actor was just destined for a role. Think about how inextricably linked Angela Bassett and Tina Turner are after the 1993 classic What’s Love Got to Do With It. Over the last decade or so we’ve seen a host of biopics centering on everyone from James Brown to Steve Jobs. When a biopic covers a musician it must be particularly hard for filmmakers to nail the depiction, because they have the added task of accurately capturing the subject’s artistry and creative process in addition to just an impersonation or exercise in mimicry. Don Cheadle (Captain America: Civil War) looks perfect in the role of Miles Davis, and his involvement with the film on a cellular level reflects the passion and commitment he brought to portraying this legend and musical genius.
The film opens in the ‘present’ year of 1979, as Miles is being interviewed. His record label is hounding him to hand over tapes from a recent recording session, while Miles demands to be compensated first. He lives reclusively, his large brownstone a lonely, haphazard jumble of papers and clutter. Enter Rolling Stone reporter Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor, Star Wars: Episode VII: – The Force Awakens), an intrepid nuisance determined to pen the Miles Davis comeback story. Through Miles’ conversations with Dave we are taken via flashback to the 1950s, when Davis first rose to prominence on a national stage. He is particularly haunted by memories of his first wife Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi, The Invitation), a vibrant and lovely woman whom Miles stifles in his demand that she give up her love of dancing to be his doting wife.
Cheadle was the uncanny embodiment of Miles Davis, from his signature rasp to his seemingly affable, accessible demeanor. He captured an interesting duality, showing that Miles was very aware of his own greatness, yet he had an approachable, selfless air about him. The epitome of cool. Most importantly, he provided a glimpse into Miles’ creative process, as we see him work on studio arrangements with other composers and delightfully improvise at home with Frances, during some of their more tender, intimate moments. Not that he needed it, but Cheadle humanized Davis, even in some of his darker moments. The film never demonized Davis, even as it exposed drug abuse and womanizing infidelity.
What an interesting, artful film. I don’t have any real criticism, only a few observations. Cheadle obviously selected a very narrow slice of Davis’ life to explore, rather than an extensive chronology of his childhood, musical beginnings, or other lovers (I had no idea he dated Cicely Tyson – she’s not referenced at all). I felt that the film presupposes a basic familiarity with Davis, and I guess that’s ok. I applaud Cheadle for his unique approach. Not every biopic is going to read like a step-by-step biography. The film was filled with musicality and warmth, yet left an air of mystery around the legendary jazzman. Cheadle did a masterful job on and off screen, and I hope he is rewarded for his performance. This was an emotionally gratifying portrayal and I recommend it to anyone looking for something a bit different at the theater. Grade: A