Trumpeter Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) has not been performing or recording music for around five years now, and with the year 1979 it seems as if he may never be heard of again. He prefers to sit alone in his apartment, reviewing footage, getting high and listening to music, and when he hears a DJ on the radio singing the praises of his Kind of Blue album, that it will be as celebrated in a thousand years as it is at the moment, he immediately phones him up live on air and tells him in no uncertain terms he is talking shit. Phone call over, he reminisces about Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi), one of the wives he drove away through jealousy-fuelled violence, but there seems to be someone at the door...
Who is it? It's only Ewan McGregor, not one of Davis's celebrity mates as he was actually playing a Rolling Stone reporter who has turned up on his doorstep unannounced to interview him. He gets a punch in the face for his trouble, as the script was keen to emphasise the celebrated musician's violent side, which took it down a very peculiar avenue, but then the whole thing was peculiar, bringing to the ordinary biopic what Todd Haynes had pioneered with his Bob Dylan movie I'm Not There, which was to adopt the persona of the famous person and basically make up a lot of stuff that may or may not have happened to them. Quite what the purpose was did not make itself entirely apparent.
Don Cheadle, whose pet project this was, wanted to take a look askance at the real individual in a manner that he felt Davis would approve of, capturing the essence of the man rather than beholden to the minutiae of his existence as it was recorded by history. With his fellow screenwriter Steven Baigelman he concocted a bizarre account of one day and night in Davis's life, accompanied by flashbacks to fill in the backstory, though these served merely to muddy the issue of what was already turning into an esoteric version of what he got up to when he was not playing his instrument. For a start, one felt the film was already compromised by the journalist character, nothing wrong with McGregor's acting, but he was too obviously crowbarred in.
The reason for that? The only way Cheadle could raise money for the project was if he included a white sidekick for Davis, because supposedly non-African American audiences would find their heads exploding when faced with a film featuring mainly black actors, it was just too much for them to take onboard. This appeared to have prompted the director to transform his biopic into the jazz version of Lethal Weapon, only Don was inhabiting the wild Mel Gibson character and Ewan was Danny Glover, and if you think that fitting action flick sequences into the tale of Davis might not be as smooth as much of the man's music would sound, then you would not be far wrong. Frankly, the punning title should have been a strong indication that all was not exactly well here, but it came across as what Cheadle wanted to make.
Even with the compromises. Yet it grew stranger, as the main plot, when all the regretful flashbacks and drug dealing were dealt with (this did not gloss over Davis's addictions), was all about our hero trying to get back some valuable tapes of his performance that the record company had in their possession, in effect remaking the Paul McCartney flop of the nineteen-eighties Give My Regards to Broad Street which had more or less the same concerns, with all the fretting over art and commerce and musical integrity that went with it. The Beatle did not get into a gun battle where he suffered a bullet wound to the leg in his movie, but whether you thought Miles Davis doing precisely that here was a good thing or not was a matter of taste, even if it did live down to violent, angry black man stereotypes in a manner that was regrettable. Certainly the real Davis was not averse to lashing out at those around him, but to ramp up that violence to render him a pistol-toting gangsta who got into Blaxploitation-style adventures misguidedly made that damaging personality trait exciting, and though Cheadle wanted us to think about his subject in a novel way, this did not seem helpful and swamped the music too. An oddity, nonetheless.