Don Cheadle on Miles Ahead
In 2006 at the induction of Miles Davis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame his nephew Vince Wilburn Jr. mentioned that there would be a movie made about Davis’ life. Don Cheadle was announced as the only actor who could play jazz legend Davis.
“Nobody had told me,” Cheadle tells Free Press Houston in an interview during his presentation of the film Miles Ahead at last month’s SXSW Film Festival.
“That started the phone calls and the attempts to get us together. I wanted to do it a little differently than they had envisioned. I wanted something that felt creative and impressionistic. They agreed. I said great, when somebody writes it and you get the financing give me a call.
“The reality is that the only way that would happen is if I took on the responsibility and did it myself. And that’s what I did,” says Cheadle.
Miles Ahead moves like a bullet taking you places that you’ve never been. Set in the mid-70s during an artistic lull in his career the film depicts Davis strung out on cocaine and dragging a fictional Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor up to the challenge) around New York City. Together they search for drugs while also trying to recover a recording stolen from Davis’ townhome.
Cheadle produced, directed, stars and co-wrote the film with Steven Baigelman. The latter also wrote the James Brown biopic Get On Up as well as wrote and directed the 1996 crime comedy Feeling Minnesota.
At one point Cheadle had a deal for the film with HBO and Picturehouse but that fell through.
“We rebooted the project and hired Steven. He and I threw out the whole story and figured out a different way to tell it,” says Cheadle. They both knew it shouldn’t be a cradle to grave story.
“We didn’t want to focus on when he met Coltrane or when he met Dizzy. We came up with this angle of a man trying to overcome his artistic block. How to say those things again.
“We didn’t want to gloss over things, to be a love letter to Miles Davis. We also didn’t want to be sensationalistic with the dark part of his story. It’s a complete story that is catapulted along by all this fantastic music that this man created. All along it’s a story about a person trying to figure out how to get back to what he wanted to say artistically,” says Cheadle.
The narrative weaves between Cheadle and McGregor combing the darker recesses of New York nightlife combined with Davis’ troubled marriage to Frances Taylor (1958 – 1968), played in the film by Emayatzy Corinealdi. (Corinealdi can also be seen in the current indie thriller The Invitation.)
There are parts of the film where Cheadle is playing trumpet but the soundtrack is from the Miles Davis discography. “In other portions of the film where I’m playing we used Keane Harold,” says Cheadle.
Miles Ahead concludes with a fictionalized concert that might have been as Davis emerges from his late-70s slump. Cheadle is playing alongside previous collaborators with Davis like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, along with musicians like Esperanza Spaulding and Gary Clark, Jr.
“I did see Miles perform, when I was a senior in high school, at Red Rocks in Colorado. Up until that time I myself was a musician and played in jazz bands,” recounts Cheadle who played saxophone as a teen, and came from a musically inclined family.
Cheadle has Miles Ahead in theaters as well as roles in the Showtime series House of Lies and the upcoming blockbuster Captain America: Civil War
“It’s a busy spring,” says Cheadle.
Miles Ahead opens in Houston this weekend in area theaters.
— Miles Bergeron