Because improvisation is the heart of jazz, a few new biopics of storied trumpeters are seeing fit to mess with the facts. Theoretically, it shouldn’t be a problem: With this music, it’s not what you play but how you play it. As told in the current “Born to be Blue,” the Chet Baker story more or less remains within the realm of nonfiction, but “Miles Ahead,” a passion project of its director, co-writer, and star Don Cheadle, is plumb made up. And it dares you to object.
Again, not necessarily a problem, since Cheadle is never not worth watching and doubly so as late-period Miles, a force of barely banked murder beneath an electric shock of hair and industrial-strength shades. It’s the late 1970s and the great man hasn’t released any music in half a decade. Is he burnt out? Doped up? Has he lost his lip, his nerve, his mind? The suits at Columbia records are getting antsy and a reporter for Rolling Stone is at the door.
The reporter, Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), is a British-born bottom-feeder who needs a scoop and realizes he may have one if he can separate Davis from a reel of tape containing the jazz icon’s first recording session in years. That reel becomes the movie’s talisman, the thing everyone wants to get their hands on, and “Miles Ahead” crisscrosses a few days in New York — plus a few decades of flashbacks in Davis’s mind — as he fends off what seems like a city of hustlers. The way Cheadle tells it, Davis was the king of that city because he figured out how to hustle art.
It’s a phantasmagoric, impressionistic version of a legendary life, and sober-sided jazz historians will probably hate it. About the only real-life musician name-checked besides Davis is Gil Evans (Jeffrey Grover), who orchestrated the great run of late-’50s albums “Miles Ahead,” “Porgy and Bess,” and “Sketches of Spain.” There’s a pianist who looks sort of like Bill Evans and someone else who might be Herbie Hancock, but that’s not the point. Very little penetrated Davis’s fierce protective shell, and Cheadle seems to want to look at the life from the inside out.
He gives a great performance. The actor rasps his dialogue from what feels like the bottom of an ashtray, and a sequence in which Davis stalks into the Columbia executive suite with a pistol and a grudge is a choice piece of grandstanding. It almost doesn’t matter that it never happened; the movie convinces you it should have. The modern-day scenes have a pungent, day-glo urgency — they’re coked up — while the flashbacks are cool and craftsmanlike, as controlled as any of the cuts on Davis’s timeless 1959 album “Kind of Blue.”
The story in those earlier scenes is that Miles wooed and won the love of his life, the ballet dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi, centered and graceful), then let his need for control overwhelm the marriage; this is a familiar and ugly picture, and “Miles Ahead” doesn’t shy from it. But neither does Cheadle connect it to the modern-day story line in any meaningful way. The movie is vibrantly all over the map, and the star doesn’t direct so much as over-direct, cramming in as many camera moves, flashy cuts, and ducks down the metaphorical alley as he can manage. Cheadle’s to be commended for climbing out of the cramped biopic box, but he hasn’t figured out what the new box should be made of, nor what should go in it and what should get left out.
The music is fine, with trumpeter Keyon Harrold dubbing in the licks over Cheadle’s trained fingering and a lot of actual Davis in the background. If you want, you can see “Miles Ahead” as a bandstand cutting session, with the leader allowing for sharp solo turns by McGregor, Corinealdi, Michael Stuhlbarg as a smug thug of a promoter, and the fine up-and-coming actor Lakeith Lee Stanfield (“Selma,” “Short Term 12”) as a nervous young rival with a horn.
It’s all deeply felt and just as deeply unfocused, and that, more than the invented story line, betrays the movie’s subject. See it for Cheadle — for his performance and his ambition — but know that his everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach does a disservice to the man whose life he’s telling. Davis always understood that the notes he didn’t play were as important as the ones he did.
Directed by Don Cheadle. Written by Cheadle, Steven Baigelman, Stephen J. Rivele, and Christopher Wilkinson. Starring Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lakeith Lee Stanfield. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs. 100 minutes. R (strong language throughout, drug use, some sexuality/nudity, and brief violence).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.