If you had a time machine and wanted to know where "cool" came from, you could do worse than to travel back to 1949 New York and look up a guy named Miles Davis. Davis was a pioneer in bebop and jazz music, in case you didn't know (and if you didn't, shame on you). It seems like it would be a great fit for Hollyweird to make some sort of biopic of Davis and his exploits on the bleeding edge of music and popular culture. Somehow, it hasn't happened until now, with Don Cheadle's feature film directorial debut, Miles Ahead.
Cheadle takes the lead in front of the camera as well, playing Davis during his post-post-modern era in the late '70s, with wild hair and an even wilder drug-addicted disposition. Davis is on the edge of creative destruction, holed up in his Manhattan apartment, being hounded by record company executives and a morally bankrupt but somehow loveable freelance reporter, played by Ewan McGregor. Cheadle's performance is remarkable. He keys into Davis' raspy, curt, nearly unhinged personality.
The movie starts off with a car chase and a gunfight. You read that right. A lauded jazz musician, whose music you're more likely to hear now in a fine dining restaurant than in the smoke-filled gin-joints of yesteryear, wildly fires a revolver out of the back of his luxury automobile—chased by an unknown assailant for a reason that's not entirely clear at the outset. It's worth noting that it's not the only gunfight of the movie (or the only car chase, for that matter). Whether this event is true or not isn't the point. Rather, Miles Ahead is an attempt to portray Davis as a gangster (those are Cheadle's words) and a man of his time—being an African-American somewhat involved with a criminal underworld due to his habits during the high era of the civil rights movement and its immediate aftermath.
The story alternates back and forth between his experiences in the 1950s and meeting his wife Frances (a powerhouse performance by Emayatzy Corinealdi), and the '70s coked-up and in-a-rut version of Davis. The editing helps to communicate the fractured point-of-view of Davis' character, with seamless transitions throughout the narrative. You can respect the artistic decisions behind every shot and cut.
Miles Ahead is worth taking the time to see. It never lets up in its unapologetic portrayal of an American icon, despite how uncomfortable he may make us feel at times. Cheadle makes Miles real.