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'Miles Ahead' Shows A Dissipated Davis Who Still Burns Hot

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In 1975, after Miles Davis recorded his best known albums, he mysteriously dropped out of sight for five years. That period is the springboard for the new film "Miles Ahead," directed and co-written by Don Cheadle, who also stars as Miles Davis. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: In 2006, after Miles Davis was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - he died in 1991 - a member of his family told the press that a biopic was in the works starring Don Cheadle. Cheadle has said this was news to him but that he instantly saw the possibilities.

As Miles Davis in "Miles Ahead," he has the right wariness and sad, shocked-open wide eyes. Cheadle grew up playing the sax and learned trumpet for the role of Sammy Davis, Jr., in the TV biopic "The Rat Pack." Onstage in the movie, he’s unusually convincing, miming to Mile Davis’s performances. He bends over his trumpet as if he’s thinking each note, saying what he can’t say in any other language. The combination - thoughtful and feral, intellectual and erotic - is, for many of us, the essence of Miles. It’s a thrilling performance in a movie that’s good but not up to its star.

That’s mainly Cheadle’s fault, too. He’s also the director and co-screenwriter with Steven Baigelman. But you can sympathize. In interviews, he’s said he couldn’t get financing without a white co-star. That turned out to be Ewan McGregor, who plays a journalist writing an article about Davis’s five-year disappearance from the music scene in the 1970s. No knock on McGregor but the story is a little stale.

It’s set at the end of that five-year absence and turns on a session tape Davis has supposedly just made that his record company wants and a nefarious manager steals, which prompts Miles to do a lot of raging and gun-waving. There’s even a car chase. Davis was a recluse for five years, but none of the rest actually happened. It’s a fantasy, which wouldn’t matter if it were compelling, which it isn’t.

Here’s what’s good in "Miles Ahead" - everything else. Freed from standard biopic conventions, Cheadle focuses on one window of time, with plenty of space for flashbacks to the late '50s and '60s. The gist is that Davis never recovered from the loss of his wife, the dancer Frances Taylor, played by the magnetic actress Emayatzy Corinealdi, who flees when the cocaine-addled Miles - after cheating on and beating her - pulls a gun and hunts phantom intruders.

Talking to McGregor’s journalist, Miles weaves memories of their relationship through thoughts on his own artistic evolution, his high rasp uncannily like Miles’s own voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MILES AHEAD")

EWAN MCGREGOR: (As Dave Brill) So you studied piano, too, huh.

DON CHEADLE: (As Miles Davis) No, just woke up black, knew how to play.

MCGREGOR: (As Dave Brill) You're black? Is it cool?

CHEADLE: (As Miles Davis) Go ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHEADLE: (As Miles Davis) Frances loved Chopin.

MCGREGOR: (As Dave Brill) Yeah, she looks like a classy chick.

CHEADLE: (As Miles Davis) It's all we ever play at the house, you know, classical music. Chopin, Stravinsky, you know, we'd throw on some LaVelle. I studied all them cats, man, broke down their compositions. These revolutionaries, innovators, pushing back at that standard, classical bag. Chopin - it's all about improvisation. Bird and Diz is doing that onstage every night on the fly, didn't write it down.

I wanted to quit every night. You know, old people, they come up to me and they say, why don't you play it like you used to? I say, tell me how I used to. It takes a long time to be able to play like yourself. You don't do nothing like you used to. The music don't move on in this dead music, you know? It's just dead.

EDELSTEIN: In "Miles Ahead," Davis is dissipated by illness and addiction but still burning hot, too hot to settle into existing musical forms. It’s Cheadle’s most electrified performance since the one that made him a star, the incorrigibly homicidal Mouse in the 1995 mystery "Devil In A Blue Dress."

As director, his style is jazziest when he travels into the past, when Miles’s memories drift in on a wave of blue notes and cigarette smoke. We see him bend band mates like Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock to his will but also give them room to find their own pulse. There’s also an extraordinary turn by Keith Stanfield as an arrogant young trumpeter. Stanfield played a fiercely hurting teenage rapper in "Short Term 12" and looks more and more like a major actor.

Everything that’s great in "Miles Ahead" is marginal to the plot. But those margins are spacious enough to let Cheadle, as director and actor, go with the flow. I’d like to think even the unruly, perfectionistic Miles Davis would give at least a nod of approval.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On Monday's FRESH AIR, a former interrogator in Abu Ghraib prison, we talk with Eric Fair, who says he doesn't what he did enhanced interrogation. He considers it torture, and he deeply regrets his actions, even though he didn't commit any of the worst abuses. His new memoir is "Consequences." Hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.