The Miles Davis biopic “Miles Ahead” was a labor of love for Don Cheadle, who is the director, star, co-writer, and one of the producers of the movie. (It’s his first film as a director.) Produced independently, including funding from an IndieGoGo campaign, “Miles Ahead” was at least 10 years in the making. The movie takes place in two time periods: the late 1970s (when Davis was a drug-addled recluse taking a hiatus from releasing new music) and in flashbacks, when Davis remembers his passionate but doomed romance with his first wife, Frances Taylor (played by Emayatzy Corinealdi), whom he was married to from 1958 to 1968.
In the 1970s period of the movie, Davis encounters an ambitious journalist named Dave Brill (played by Ewan McGregor), who finagles his way into Davis’ life with the intent to get an exclusive interview, but he and Davis end up in a wild chase to get back a recording that was stolen from Davis. One of the people who desperately wants the recording is sleazy record executive Harper Hamilton (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), who is eager to release new music from Davis. “Miles Ahead” had its world premiere at the 2015 New York Film Festival in New York City. Here is what Davis said at a New York Film Festival press conference for the movie.
Can you talk about finding a way to structure “Miles Ahead,” since it took so many years to make this movie?
Yeah, this was a long time coming. The idea to do the movie about Miles had come into my radar for many, many years. People had talked about it for a long time and all the different ways they were trying to put it together and all the different people they were trying to put it together it. It really all came to the fore when Vince Wilburn Jr. announced that I was going to play him when [Miles Davis] was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
They said they were going to do a movie about his life. It was sort of a pronouncement that I was going to play him. Thank you, Vince. That started the ball rolling, so to speak, with people reaching out and different producers getting in touch with me, and trying to figure out a way to do it.
I was presented with several takes on it that I thought was kind of a standard biopic stories, kind of cradle-to-the-grave stories, chronological, the events in his life, like when he met Charlie Parker or about when he left that and experimented with different forms of music that he experimented with for his entire life. And I just wasn’t interested in doing a story in that way with this particular artist, this singular artist, who was always about doing it differently from how it had been done before. For me, it was as much about a mandate for him that he go forward and reach for something forward as much as it was to move away from the past.
So, I wanted to make a movie that I thought Miles Davis would’ve wanted to star in. To me, it was kind of, Don “Cheadle is Miles Davis as Miles Davis in ‘Miles Ahead.’” When I spoke to Vince, when I spoke to the family, I said, “I kind of want to make a movie like that. Is that something you’d be cool with, rather than a standard telling of the story?” They were like, “Yeah, I think he would’ve preferred to do something that was different and more dynamic than something that a documentary could do a lot better or that radio play can do a lot better.”
So when Steven Baigelman and myself, who co-wrote [“Miles Ahead”] shook hands and looked at each other and said, “OK, we’re not going to make the chronological A to B movie. We’re going to make a movie that’s closer to ‘Total Hero’ or ‘All That Jazz.’ It’s like, ‘Let’s do that.’”
How did you handle all the different responsibilities you had for this movie: actor, director, writer?
[He says jokingly] Drugs. [He says seriously] It was daunting. I’m glad I had a lot of time to do it. To be honest, if it hadn’t come together three years ago, if it had fallen apart, I would’ve been relieved, I think. We came close so many times. The budget started at $20 [million] at one point, then it came down. “Can we make it for $18 [million], can we make it for $15 [million], $12 [million], $10 [million]?” We finally ended up with this budget of $8.5 million that we finally settled in.
We still had to find various ways to put the money together, including an IndieGoGo campaign to get us over the hump and make up the gap. Every step of it was really difficult, but I’d say in the year before it finally all came together, it felt like a mandate to do it than something to get away from, and I didn’t want to finish having not done it. We just said we have to pull out all the stops, and we have to do whatever we have to do to find it. We were lucky to partner with Bifrost and IM Global and Kevin Hart and Pras and my producer’s cousin and everybody else. And a bunch of people on IndieGoGo found the money and put it together.
How did you go about selecting the music for “Miles Ahead”?
That was the main driver of it, because I wanted to be able to put all of Miles’ music into the film — all of it that we had the rights to do. There’s much more than was outside of our ability to put in the film. But I didn’t want to be stuck with one period of his music.
I think if we had we told it in a way that was chronological, that was cradle-to-the-grave, that was that kind of telling, we would’ve been pigeonholed that would’ve coincided with specific moments that coincided with the music. And they would’ve all be given really short shrift, I think. I much more wanted to approach the music in a way that I experienced the music when I listened to it — everything from Bitches Brew to Kind of Blue to Aghartha, which opens this [movie], up to how we end this movie with Pharoahe Monch and Miles’ music and Miles’ voice.
At the end of his life, he was recording with Easy Mo Bee, and he’s done stuff with Prince. If he were alive today, he would’ve been working with Kendrick Lamar, and he would’ve been trying to do stuff with D’Angelo. That’s the way his music was going. It all feels like different soundtracks to different elements.
I see stories in my mind when I listen to his music. I wanted to create a piece where the music could support those stories. I didn’t necessarily want it to be like, “We’re in the ‘60s, so we’re going to have the use the music that he did with the supergroup. Or we’re coming into the ‘70s, so we have to use Bitches Brew.”
Well, why can’t we use Bitches Brew in 1958 if it makes sense? Why can’t we use Kind of Blue in 1969 or 1970, if that’s what we feel like movie wants to be. That’s another reason why we wanted to construct it that way. Let the music guide the story as well.
Can you talk about how Robert Glasper got involved in “Miles Ahead” and what that collaboration process was like?
Robert was somebody who was introduced to me by Vince Wilburn, Miles’ nephew, who’s a musician himself. He has an album redoing some of Miles’ music. He was an easy connection.
I talked to Herbie [Hancock] about him, and Herbie’s like, “Yeah, he’s a cat I listen to. I like Rob.” He’s steeped in jazz and is really serious about that music but is also thoroughly modern. He won a Grammy for his very popular album Black Radio.
He gets it all. And he is someone who I worked very closely with in constructing a lot of this stuff. A lot of things that you hear, like [Nefertiti], that’s Rob. That’s not the Davis Quintet. He was able to recreate the music and also understand and play in that mode for music that we needed to be straight-ahead jazz.
But also, a lot of the cues that we did together were also things that we did in the studio and just kind of came up with. I would play stuff, he would play stuff. There was one cue that we were on that I wanted this bass riff to go a certain way, and I was kind of singing it and noodling on it.
And he said, “Just play it.” I was like, “I don’t play bass.” He said, “You’re playing the bass right now. Just play it, and we’ll figure it out.” That just started this really cool dynamic between us where we both felt free to bring our musical ideas to it. He’s just a great collaborator and a great musician.
How do you hope that jazz enthusiasts take “Miles Ahead” and its portrayal of Miles?
I don’t know how it’ll be received. I hope that they come to it with an expansive viewpoint that Miles had. In the movie, one of the first things he said when the reporter says “jazz,” he stops him and says, “It’s not jazz. Don’t label what I do as jazz. You’re trying to box me in. It’s social music.” And that’s out of Miles’ mouth.
I know for many people I spoke to when I was developing this, people laughed off Miles when he left acoustic and being electric and started doing that “purists” felt was a violation of who he had been and what he had done before. But that was never what Miles said he had done before. People were trying to lay a sign on him that he had never put on himself. He was always someone, not unlike Dylan, who went to where their inspiration led them, and was always trying to find the new thing or the next thing and deal with the sonics.
And a lot of other people I spoke with who had come to know and love Miles didn’t even know about Miles until they heard albums like Bitches Brew and the Jack Johnson stuff — things that were much more “rock and roll” that were not pure jazz, that allowed them to go back and find the music that had come before. They had never heard of Miles Davis. There’s a lot of different entry points to his music, depending on who you are and what moves you and what you define as the kind of music you connect to. He’s many, many things. He’s multifaceted, and I think that’s what the music is trying to represent — a multifaceted artist, not strictly a jazz musician.
Where did come up with the idea of the storyline, with the journalist and stolen tape?
I’ve been a part of a couple of biopics, and have sat next to the people I am portraying. Paul Rusesabagina was a part of “Hotel Rwanda.” I did a movie called “Rebound,” and Earl Manigault was one of the people I dealt with. He was there a lot. And “The Rat Pack” — a lot of people from Sammy [Davis Jr.’s] life were with me.
And the scenes would come up in the script, and I would look to Paul and say, “Is this how it is?” And he’d go, [he makes a skeptical sound], “It’s close enough.” We were trying.
What we all know in these “real stories” is that to some degree, it’s all historical fiction. To some degree, everyone’s taken poetic license, because clearly, you can’t encapsulate someone’s life in 90 minutes or two hours or whatever it is. There are characters that are taken out, characters created, scenes omitted, things taking place in different places. We know this is what has to happen in a film.
I didn’t want to attempt to be cute and say, “This is a true story.” I wanted the storyteller in the movie — Miles Davis — to be, “If I’m going to tell a story, I’m going to tell it in this fashion.” I wanted it to be creative, and I wanted it to be interesting, and I wanted it to be different. That was the framing of the story, and that narrative would allow me to do that.
The Dave Brill character is a composite of many characters, of many people who at that period were trying to get these interviews from Miles — many because they thought they would be the last ones. His obituary had been written at that time, because no one knew how the Howard Hughes of jazz was or what his story would be. And other people were trying to get was the comeback story. Dave Brill is a composite of several different people in that period of Miles’ life.
And I thought that fighting to come back and trying to find your voice and writers’ block and being creatively shut down was relatable to everybody, more than trying to figure out how to specifically demonstrate Miles’ genius. The music for most people — jazz, specifically — people are at arms’ length with it, as far as their ability to understand it. It’s very complex, it’s highly constructed. It’s as dense as classical music.
If you don’t “get it,” for most people it sounds like music in the background of a party or you something that you hear in an elevator. You don’t understand what’s happening what’s happening with the music. It’s also not hits.
There’s no three-minute Miles Davis song. His songs are 10 minutes, nine minutes. They’re expansive. They require you to really focus and stay with the music. It’s a very aural experience, as opposed to a very cinematic one where we pictures are driving the day. So it was trying to strike a balance between trying to use different pieces that would support the film but would also demonstrate the breadth and scope of his music. And this particular thread of the story would allow me to the landscape do that.
Can you talk about Miles Davis’ sense of humor that we see in “Miles Ahead”?
I got a lot of stories from Vince, who spent a lot of time with Miles and toured with him. Some of the things he said I couldn’t put in the movie, obviously. There was a set of twins that Miles knew later in his life … Vince said he called [the twins] Same Thing.
It’s not something people talked a lot about — Miles’ sense of humor. A lot of people think he was just this intimidating, imposing force that was someone to be scared of. And obviously, if you listen to his music, if you hear what’s happening, it’s full of whimsy. His music is full of insight. Lyrically, he’s quoting things that are humorous. Obviously, the man is not monolithic.
For more info: “Miles Ahead” website