Set in that bad patch of the late '70s when Miles Davis didn't much bother leaving his brownstone, Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead is named for the first of the trumpeter's epochal collaborations with the arranger Gil Evans, from 1957. But a more accurate title might have come the brace of casually brilliant records Davis knocked out with his first great quintet a year earlier, in 1956: Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet. Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet. To his credit, Cheadle (who directed, co-wrote and stars) chucks away everything false about the standard musician biopic and instead goes all-in on his subject's prickly, elusive presence. This could have been named Hangin' with Miles.
The film's heart, though, is in the basement of Davis' brownstone, where the musician snorts coke, works his heavy punching bag and waits out the (literal and figurative) disco party raging upstairs. Still, even guttered, Davis fascinates, and Cheadle's tender eyes and scraped-raw whisper prove potent.
Sometimes Davis' attention slackens and the film vaults into his past, to memories centered on Frances Taylor, the ballerina and Broadway star who married Davis in 1958. Early flashbacks celebrate her dancing, kick at the racism of the uptown arts world and -- in a scene of strong, earthy passion -- honor these icons' lovemaking. History demands that Miles Ahead move on from that reverie, and soon, with too little context, we see Davis turn controlling, paranoid and violent toward her. In the present Ewan McGregor turns up as an eager-beaver reporter who gets caught up in chases with goons hired by a Columbia Records exec. The worst of these scenes plays out like Adventures in Babysitting: Miles Davis Edition.