There’s a reason that, in an age when everyone from Hank Williams to the Notorious B.I.G. has been blessed with a biopic, a musical giant like Miles Davis had long eluded big-screen treatment. For starters, the idea of trying to do justice to the jazz legend’s multifaceted career with a cradle-to-grave template seemed ridiculous; when asked what he’d accomplished, the jazz trumpeter and composer replied with, “Well, I guess I changed music five or six times,” and it wasn’t an idle boast. There was his tempestuous life story, the kind without an easy Walk the Line/Ray arc to fall back on. And then there was the simple question of: Who had the depth and chops to play him without turning the whole endeavor into cut-rate cinematic karaoke?
Enter Don Cheadle, a movie star with a musical background and enough respect for the genius behind Birth of the Cool that he knew a standard Let Us Now Praise Famous Men story simply wouldn’t cut it. Doing double duty as director and Davis avatar, the 51-year-old actor decided to take a page out of the subject’s playbook — by throwing away the playbook entirely. The result, Miles Ahead (named after the trumpeter’s 1957 album with Gil Evans, and in theaters on April 1st), eschews everything from his bebop roots to his Bitches Brew fusion explorations; instead, the free-form portrait toggles between the late 1950s, when dancer/future wife Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) came into his life, and the “Dark Magus” period of the mid-1970s when Davis stopped recording and went into drug-addled seclusion. It also introduces a fictional Rolling Stone reporter named Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), who instigates a literal wild ride involving shoot-outs, stolen master tapes and some incredibly close calls. “It’s less a Miles biopic,” McGregor says, “than an attempt to cast Miles in a caper flick that he might like to have been part of.”
Whether or not you dig its road-less-traveled meta-method, you can’t call Miles Ahead typical — to quote the film’s video-interview preamble, Cheadle has made a movie that leaves the genre’s usual “corny, Walter Cronkite schtick” on the cutting-room floor and “come[s] with some attitude.” Sitting down to talk the day after the film’s screening at the Sundance Film Festival last January, the star walked us through how he got involved with the project, why it needed to be a buddy comedy with a white co-star as much a biography and why concentrating on the moment the prolific musician went silent might say even more about who he was than an album-by-album breakdown.
This all sort of starts at Miles’ induction at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, right?
That’s where it officially starts, yeah. But it’s funny, because there had been a lot of folks saying “Do you know who you should play in a movie?” over the years. The first group of writers I worked with, Chris Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivelle — they’d written Ali. I’d auditioned for a part in that movie and Chris, who’s a big Miles aficionado, was going, “Man! You could really play Miles Davis. I know the family, it’s something you should think about doing.” And I was like, “Well, if there’s something that happens that makes sense, let me know.” But it was always cursory statements.
Then when Miles was getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, a reporter asked Miles’ nephew, Vince Wilburn, about a Davis movie. The response was something like “Only one actor can play my uncle in a film, and that’s Don Cheadle! And he’s going to be doing it soon!” Which was news to me.
Do you not have any input into your career or your choice of roles?
Right? “Well, guys, that’s not usually how this works, so…” “No, Don, you’ve already been cast, here’s when we need you on set.” [Laughs] But I thought, well, let me meet with the family. They pitched me a few ideas, which were … kinda standard. I felt I’d seen it before.
“To get this film financed, we needed a white co-star. And until Ewan came on, until we had cast the proper white co-star, there was no Miles Davis movie. There was no Miles Ahead. That means something. That’s the reality.”
Typical cradle-to-grave stuff?
Some of that, yeah; one concept was to focus on the five women in his life that he loved and use that as a framework. I told them, “Thanks for thinking of me, but I’m really not vibing off of any of these ideas.”
Then, almost as an afterthought, I said, “I think we’ve got to make a movie about this dude as a gangster” — ’cause that’s how I feel about Miles Davis. He’s a G. All those apocryphal stories about how bold and dynamic he was, the gangster shit he’d do … you could fit all that into a biopic, I guess. But I just thought, let’s do a movie that Miles Davis would say, ‘I want to be the star of that movie. Not the one about me. The one where I’m the fucker running it, and I tell everybody what happens.'” Take the music he made in 1950 and put it over scenes set in 1978, or take his 1965 album and drop it into 1945. Just do it without the constraints of any rules. Make some mistakes, go crazy, crash into a wall — anything but something fucking cookie-cutter.
What was their reaction?
They were completely silent. Then it was [starts clapping]. “That sounds hot. That sounds cool. That’s it!” And I was like, “Great, so if you find someone who’ll do that, call me.” [Laughs] Because who’s going to fucking do that!?! No one.
I’m driving away from the meeting, I’m like a block from my house, and I realize: Shit, I have to direct this myself. I pull over to the side of the road and I’m literally dialing Vince’s number when he calls me. I just blurted out, “Hey, Vince, what if I direct it? I think that’s the only way we can get it to go that way.” And he goes, “That’s exactly what I was calling to ask you.”
So it immediately went from “You should play Miles Davis” to “You will be co-writing and directing yourself as Miles Davis in two distinct eras, in a wild, free-form biopic that you just pitched” in one fell swoop?
[Sigh] Yeah. I tried giving the movie away, believe me. There were a few attempts to get another director involved. And they were points where, if it had have evaporated, I would’ve been relieved: “Well, thank god, I didn’t have to take all that on, it would’ve killed me.” But it started to become more like a career mandate. I was imagining myself being at the end of my life and going “If I had just strapped it all on, I could have done it. But I didn’t.” That started feeling like a bigger monkey on my back than the actual taking it all on and doing it. I could here Miles’ voice in my head, saying, “Oh, you scared, motherfucker? Quit bitching about it. Just get out there and do it.”
Why focus on the roughly five year period — 1975-1980 — in which he didn’t play?
That wasn’t in there originally, actually. [Screenwriter} Steven Baigelman came on, and we were hashing out the various eras we wanted to look at; meanwhile, we’d sold the movie, then that deal fell through, and we just kept dancing with different financiers. “Can you make it for 15 million? I’m sorry, did I say 15, I meant 11 … I’m sorry, did I say 11, can you make it for 10? Can you do it for 9.5 million? Oh, sorry, we can’t do it.” This went on for years. We just kept trying to make it leaner and meaner, to get it to point where we could attract an irrational investor to go, “Hmm, an offbeat biopic on Miles Davis for $11 million? Cool, I’m in.”
“I see you were planning on burning that pile of money. Instead of that …”
[Laughs] “… please, let us burn it for you.” We finally were able to find people who’d help, and I had to do the Indiegogo campaign to crowdfund it, which worked out well. But we’re doing all this research the whole time things keep starting up and falling apart, and we suddenly begin to realize that one of the most interesting parts of his life isn’t when he’s reinventing music several times over; it’s when he’s not making music. He’s sitting in this house by himself, he’s recovering from this hip injury, he’s indulging in self-destructive behavior and he might be dying. What’s going on in his head?
What we were trying to do, for better or worse, to the effect that it worked or didn’t work, was externalize what in our minds was an internal journey. When we talked to Vince, we asked him, “Why did Miles come back in 1980?” “Well, he said he was ready to come back.” “But why did he stop in the first place?” “Because he didn’t know what else to say?” The idea that you’ve reinvented music a half dozen times and then you go, “What else? What’s left?”
For an artist, that’s the kiss of death. So what happened to get him out of that hole and playing again? We go back to the Frances Taylor years, sure, but what’s going on in those five years? In the books, it’s this much. [Holds fingers an inch apart] So we thought, that’s the movie. How Miles got his groove back.
And that necessitated bringing a fictional, handsome Rolling Stone journalist named Dave into the story, right? Which, by the way, thank you.
You’re welcome, Dave [laughs]. There were a few different journalists who did try to interview him during this time, but there were some real-world concerns we needed to deal with and that necessitated bringing the character in.
Such as to get this film financed, we needed a white co-star. These are issues that come into play. And until Ewan came on, until we had cast the proper white co-star, there was no Miles Davis movie. There was no Miles Ahead. The family had been trying to make this movie for years, and we straight-up told them, “We need a white co-star. We need to tell this story, in order to get this money, with a white male lead.” That means something.
My hat’s off to Ewan, who, you know, didn’t look at this role and go, “It’s like a second fiddle.” Or: “I’m carrying Miles’ water.” He really found a way to really make this his story as much as it is Miles’ story. They kind of go off in this gangster buddy pic and do their heist movie.
You do flip the script by making the white guy a sidekick to the black character, instead of what you usually see. But that’s incredibly depressing.
That’s the reality. It’s called moviemaking.
That’s you playing with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter in those final sequences, right?
It is. That was a blast. I saw Miles play live back in the early Eighties — the We Want Miles tour — and I’ve been playing saxophone since I was 10 years old or so, studying jazz since the fifth grade, so to actually do those pieces with those guys — that was incredible. When I graduated high school, I had music scholarships and a few acting scholarships, and I saw what my musician friends were doing and thought, “Practicing for four to five hours, just woodshedding with my instrument … no. I can’t get to the place they’re getting at.” It was just too hard.
So you went into a more stable, less intensive line of work?
Right. “I’m going to do something that’s a guarantee, a lock! I’ll become an actor.” You idiot! People are going, “It’s tough, Don — what’s your fallback?” “Music.” [Laughs]
Was it harder trying to nail Miles as a character than as a musician? Or keep yourself from mimicing the tics that people know of him?
You mean like the rasp, for example? Vince played me an old tape of him before he lost his voice — he sounded just like me now. It was kind of uncanny. But I just watched a lot of old footage, made sure I had the basics down. Mostly, I tried to connect myself to him. You know: “I’m a musician who studied music for 20 years. I’m a player. I’m a creative person. I’m a writer. I’m an artist. I’m a painter. I’m a dad.” All these things that Miles was as well. So it was about trying to pull him towards me and play off of that. Anyone can do the rasp. It’s doing the voice behind it that’s tough.
Now that you’ve spent so much time trying to get into his headspace? Does Miles seem bigger or smaller, more human, to you after this?
I don’t think my idea of him any different than it has been. The knowns about Miles’ life have always been the knowns. He never hid the good, the bad or the ugly of his life. But it was interesting to go through the autobiography and then check those same stories against other people’s testimonies, and it’s like fucking Rashomon. It’s all different, and it was in the space between those accounts that we thought, That’s where Miles is. Aim for that.
Do you think people will find fault with the fact that some aspects of his life get left out?
Probably. The first time I had told people I was going to be doing this film, most of them were like, “Well how are you going to deal with the heroin addiction? That’s going to be a dark place for you to go to.” I said, “I don’t know that I’m going to bring heroin addiction into it. I don’t know why that needs to be a part of it.” And there are people who’ll have issues with that, or some of the other unsavory aspects of who he was not being in here. I get it. All of us have a lot of shit. Hopefully, this movie starts a bigger conversation about him: Let’s talk about the drugs. Let’s talk about the abuse.
But let’s also talk about the music. Because that’s just as big a part of he was. The irreverence for rules, the restlessness, the mindset of “I just invented cool jazz — okay, what’s next? Modal jazz? Fusion? Let’s follow that and see where it leads.” That’s what made him a great artist. You can’t leave the music out.