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There’s a hopped-up scene in “Miles Ahead,” controlled yet frenzied, when you get why Don Cheadle decided to go for broke. He’s playing Miles Davis (he also directed) and the time is the late 1970s — although it’s also the 1960s. Time and space tend to blur in this movie and while the setting is a ’70s boxing match, a couple of figures from Miles’s past — his wife, his younger self — soon swing in to shake things up. She’s running scared and the 1970s Miles is running amok, but the younger Miles, well, there he is, too, playing it cool in the ring. Music is fighting, at least for this pugilist.
Does it matter that stretches of “Miles Ahead” — a gun-rattling, squealing-tire car chase included — came out of the filmmakers’ imagination rather than Davis’s life? (Mr. Cheadle shares script credit with Steven Baigelman.) Purists may howl, but they’ll also miss the pleasure and point of this playfully impressionistic movie. Big-screen biographies tend to come in one flavor: the bittersweet hagiographic. Most are polite exhumations that follow the often great man of history/art/politics arc with the usual highs and lows, witchy and whiny women, and transcendent payoff. “Miles Ahead” has these, including the transcendence; this is, after all, about Miles Davis.
But which Miles, which period, which sound? It’s a little of this, a lot of that, with melody, rhythm, harmony. Some of it takes place in the ’50s, around the time he met his first wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), and was working with the arranger Gil Evans, with whom Davis cut the record “Miles Ahead.” Mostly, the movie gets its funny-strange groove on in ’79, when Davis had gone quiet (1975 to early 1980) and didn’t play his horn. “I would walk by it and look at it,” Davis wrote in his autobiography, “then think about trying to play. But after that I didn’t even do that.” In the movie, when he eyes his horn it’s as if it were a threat or a mirror: You lookin’ at me?
The movie’s framing device is familiar, but works. In 1979, a journalist, Dave (Ewan McGregor), bangs on Miles’s New York brownstone. Dave is a scribbler for Rolling Stone or so he claims, and is here for the story, which is more or less the filmmakers’ and our goal, too. Scuffing around in a bathrobe and dark glasses the sizes of hubcaps, Miles has gone hermit, the Prince of Darkness turned the Prince of Silence. His health is bad and one of his hips is shot, and all the street drugs probably aren’t helping. (By his own account, Davis was at one point snorting four or five grams of coke a day, while smoking four packs of cigarettes. Forget playing — how could he breathe?)
In narrative terms, Dave the journalist is the streamlined and far more economical version of the reporter in “Citizen Kane” who, after death comes to Charles Foster Kane in his castle, sets the investigation — the biography — in motion. Dave breaches Miles’s Xanadu with a foot in the door, a scene that Mr. Cheadle plays for slapstick-spiked comedy. (Dave ends up inside, Miles out, banging to be let in.) Davis is a monumental figure, but Mr. Cheadle isn’t working in marble. His approach is human-scaled. He lets you see Miles sweat, shows the vanity — Miles primping his hair — panic, drug-hunger, meanness, but also the sly intelligence, pleasure and genius. Miles is modal, as he tells Dave, a nod to the improvisational scale-based jazz exemplified by his landmark record “Kind of Blue.”
Frances turns out to be Miles’s Rosebud in this telling. Shortly after Dave wedges himself into Miles’s life, they end up at Columbia Records, where Miles — after a showdown with some music types, including one played by a peerless Michael Stuhlbarg — ends up in an elevator lined with mounted records. Seeing Frances on the cover of his album “Some Day My Prince Will Come” sends Miles back in time. There, he is the younger Miles, dressed in sharp suits, on top of the scene and in love with Frances, who melts in and out like a dream as the story shifts between past and present. Mr. Cheadle, making his directorial feature debut, switches times, moods and modes effortlessly.
Things go bad, as does Miles. Mr. Cheadle doesn’t judge; instead, he presents Miles as a man of complications and contradictions who, after hanging up the phone with Frances, returns to a bed full of women. Sometimes, it seems that Mr. Cheadle has shaved off too many of the real man’s edges, as in a domestic fight in which Miles doesn’t throw the first punch. It’s a tough, furious scene, but for impact it has nothing on the follow-up, which shows a seemingly contrite Miles putting first a jeweled necklace — and then his arm — around the anguished Frances’ neck. It turns out that Mr. Cheadle is somewhat of a pugilist himself, and he has a killer sucker punch.
[Manohla Dargis is currently a chief film critic for The New York Times, a position she shares with A. O. Scott. She was formerly a film critic for the Los Angeles Times, a film editor for the LA Weekly and has written for a variety of publications including Film Comment and Sight and Sound.Ms. Dargis grew up in Manhattan’s East Village, where she spent many happy hours watching movies at the long-lamented St. Mark’s Cinema and Theater 80. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband.]