Don Cheadle: Why I Had to Make My Miles Davis Movie
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.
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