Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead is animated by the magic of rhythm and melody; the wonderfully entertaining film so alive with the sound of trumpets, pianos and horn sections, the legend of Miles Davis is dramatically revived in all its jazzy glory.

With Grammy-winning producer and pianist Robert Glasper involved, the biopic is enlivened by an affecting score replete with beautiful pieces and cues; Glasper’s fine compositions imbued with such soul and beating with such heart, they successfully set the tone for the film, rendering Cheadle’s take on Davis real and bringing the famous jazzman to life. 

Excellent as ever, Glasper’s musicianship invigorates a lively production, breathing even more life into the film; his score inhaling and exhaling the virtuosity of a genius – that genius being Davis. The very sound of Miles Ahead channels and invokes the spirit of the man, baring the great trumpeter’s soul with a selection of his finest songs. 

Delivering a truly electrifying performance, Don Cheadle – as the film’s director and star – paints an intimate picture of the master bandleader; a stunning portrait of a storied life lived colourfully. In Cheadle’s Miles Ahead, Davis’ life stories are also recounted through music, his most personal tales told by the tinkling pianos of the film’s score, the narration of its arrangements and notes, and the eloquence of its improvised melodies; Glasper’s curation of the film’s soundtrack giving us as viewers – us as listeners – further insight into the life and times of the man; his music playing like a biography, only with keys for words.

Listening to the film you can hear Davis’ struggles and triumphs, his ups and his downs; his blood, sweat and tears. You hear the life story of the history maker – everything that distinguished him as an enigma and icon, including his brushes with racist police, his violent outbursts and many moments of inspiration. You hear Davis’ Juilliard years, his antics on tour with the Billy Eckstine orchestra, and the jam sessions with Hendrix. You hear his admiration for Jack Johnson, his taste for fine clothes, and his famously sharp wit. You hear Davis falling in love in Paris. You hear Miles. 

So moving and evocative, Glasper’s score takes on a life of its own; the accompanying music chosen and composed for the film pulsing and alive with Davis’ greatness. In Glasper’s hands, music is a living thing.

Teaming up with Cheadle, the American jazz pianist and record producer joins a long list of famous musicians charged with scoring high profile releases, following in the footsteps of the likes of Curtis Mayfield (Superfly), Karen O (Where the Wild Things Are), and Trent Reznor (The Social Network).

From Houston, Texas, the 38-year-old has notched up two Grammy wins and worked with a wide-range of acts – including Norah Jones and Kanye West. A musician of considerable pedigree, he brings a wealth of knowledge, experience and expertise to the Miles Ahead table, shaping its soundscape to brilliant effect. 

Robert Budreau’s Chet Baker film, Born to Be Blue, just around the corner, Hollywood suddenly seems to have been transformed into a biopic factory, its conveyor belts heaving with big screen depictions of jazz’s giants and legends. Though very much welcome and appreciated – generating their fair share of positive buzz – these films face the daunting task of measuring up to previous efforts taking closer looks at the lives and careers of greats such as Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon; with well-received dramas like Bird and ‘Round Midnight setting high bars both cinematically and musically. Composer Lennie Niehaus and jazz hero Herbie Hancock (respectively) scored the latter productions, lending their immense musical talents to the entertaining dramas and establishing high standards for jazzy film scores.

miles davisWith Miles Ahead, Glasper rises to the task of matching the likes of Niehaus and Hancock. Bearing his credentials in mind, this should come as no surprise. For over a decade, the gifted Texan has been selling out shows, garnering rave reviews and spreading the gospel of jazz to wider, younger audiences. Pulling up his piano stool for Miles Ahead, Glasper’s brilliance shines through once more, his perceptive ear employed craftily to compose the film’s stirring score.

From the opening credits to the film’s final scene, Glasper’s compositions effectively add to the tone, atmosphere and subtext of Miles Ahead, telling us what characters are thinking and feeling. As you’d expect, this is especially true of Cheadle’s Davis. Fittingly, Glasper uses music to amplify the trumpeter’s moods, giving voice to his joys, sadnesses and worries with rhythm. This is best seen with Davis’ tumultuous relationship with his first wife, Frances Taylor – played onscreen by wondrous Emayatzy Corinealdi.

Sounding out the great jazzman’s longing for Taylor, following their break-up, Glasper’s moving score consistently turns wistful, becoming sad, elegiac and bittersweet whenever Davis is overtaken with nostalgia and is reminded of happier times with the beautiful dancer, showing the Prince of Darkness at his darkest. 

In one heartbreaking scene, Glasper effectively captures the discord between the two lovers, showing how far they’ve grown apart. Embroiled in a bitter argument, the husband and wife tear into each other with their cutting words, passion jutting from their eyes like daggers. Cleverly, the emotion of this scene – the full visceral force of it – isn’t carried across by raised voices or colourful language, but rather, the expressiveness of music; Glasper’s frantic drums, blaring horns and frenetic production-work playing beautifully and conveying the aggression and anger of the heated exchange. 

When the warring lovers finally call for a ceasefire and the fighting stops, the music stops with it; both Davis and Taylor standing in stark silence, the quietness of the scene loaded with meaning; chiefly, the end of their relationship. For the temperamental jazzman, this silence also signals the beginning of a new chapter in his life, symbolising the muting of his creative powers and the advent of his silent period. 

This scene is very much indicative of the quality of Glasper’s score, his compositions holding up a mirror to the people and characters portrayed in Miles Ahead. Interestingly, it also alludes to the creative process and artistry of musicians like Davis, showing how they express themselves through music. The film highlights how life inspires their art, all the while emphasising that, for obsessive craftsmen like Davis, life is art. 

Glasper does well to show this in Miles Ahead, music being everywhere in the film. The jazzy biopic is so loud and sonorous with rhythm and melody – from its score to its striking sound effects – even inanimate objects exhibit a musicality that would impress Michael Stulhbarg’s unscrupulous record producer, Harper Hamilton. Phones ring, cameras flash, cigarettes are lit and doors smashed with artful panache. Glasper finds the jazz in every scene – the same way Davis found inspiration in the most unexpected of places, playing his instruments like only he could. 

This speaks to the ubiquity of the legend’s music; the omnipresence of his sound and style; the film and its score emphasising just how influential Davis is, his footprints visible across the musical landscape of popular culture. Spotlighting the icon in all his grandeur, Miles Ahead shows that the Prince of Darkness’ popularity still endures. It shows he looms large, is as relevant as ever and stands just as tall as he did in his heyday. It shows jazz’s coolest hep-cat remains indisputably cool, his classics, like his designer threads, forever fashionable. Emphatically, it says: Miles Davis is alive.

Miles Ahead is released on April 22nd. You can watch our interview with Don Cheadle here, and read our review here.