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Musical Space: Miles Ahead

In terms of historical accuracy, movies about musicians almost always get it wrong. Not to say there are no good music films. But music and movies are two different animals, and filmmakers change facts for the sake of the story. Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s new film about Miles Davis, is a case in point: unauthentic, but still good.

Miles Ahead avoids the pretense of biography altogether. Instead, the plot sends the subject into a fantasy world. Cheadle’s story plays hard and fast with reality, creating a cartoon-like Miles who meets his ideal love, gets involved in fist fights, gun battles, and even a car chase. Yes, there’s a car chase. Jazz purists are going to pan this film, and Mr. Davis himself would have hated it if he could have seen it, but I’m going to give Miles Ahead a thumb’s up. Cheadle’s acting is excellent, and his bold direction, at its best moments, has the loose, improvisatory feel of an after-hours jam session. OK, Miles Ahead also satisfied my desire for a nostalgia trip, especially at the end, with cameo appearances by eminent Davis sidemen Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. More than anything, though, it’s the excellent soundtrack that sustains the drama, as though the story exists to support Miles’ music rather than the other way around. And that, to me, tells the story of Miles Davis better than facts ever could.

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.