CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Don Cheadle Readies His Miles Davis Movie

The birth of the flick

Miles Davis
Don Cheadle on the set of his Miles Davis biopic

Rumors of a Miles Davis biopic to star Academy Award-nominated actor Don Cheadle have been floating around for years. It first hit Cheadle’s own ears after the legendary trumpeter was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, when the actor’s name was floated by Miles’ son Erin and the trumpeter’s nephew Vince Wilburn Jr.

After his initial surprise, Cheadle immediately warmed to the idea. A saxophonist as a child, the actor first heard Miles in middle school when he would spin his parents’ Cannonball Adderley LPs to study the alto great’s technique. “That was my entrée into Miles Davis’ music,” says Cheadle, 49. “Then I started getting into his popular albums, and then the less popular ones, all the way to when he was at the end of the life and working with [hip-hop producer] Easy Mo Bee. He was always heading somewhere-that’s what I like about his music. It never feels like it’s static and stagnant, like he’s sitting still. It always feels like his music is trying to move forward.”

The film itself, to be titled Miles Ahead, is finally moving forward as well, becoming more of a reality in early June when Cheadle launched an Indiegogo campaign to help get cameras rolling later in the summer. The crowdfunding attempt took many by surprise, given Cheadle’s fame as a star of films like Hotel Rwanda, Crash and the Iron Man sequels. But the actor, who will make his directorial debut with Miles Ahead, says that using social media to raise a portion of the film’s budget-the campaign’s goal is $325,000 to be used toward production expenses-fits perfectly with his subject.

“The traditional route is not the place where you would find a movie like this,” he explains. “I don’t think of it in this way, but it’s looked at as being niche: It’s jazz, it’s period, on its face it doesn’t seem like populist subject matter. Miles eschewed that ideology, which to me is another reason why this was a great story to tell. He didn’t like the term ‘jazz’; he wanted to be thought of as ‘social music.’ The social media aspect was a way to raise the money, which is necessary, but also to get the buzz out about Miles Davis.”

Miles Ahead won’t be a traditional biopic, charting Davis’ life from cradle to grave. Cheadle defines the approach of the script, which he co-wrote with Steven Baigelman, as “kind of modal.” The main action takes place over two days in 1979, as Davis and a “disreputable Rolling Stone reporter” (to be played by Ewan McGregor) attempt to take back secret recordings stolen from Davis’ house. The “counterpoint” to that story will be his decade-long relationship with Frances Davis. “The idea was to not just tell a jazz story but to tell the specific story of a person, an artist,” Cheadle says. “That’s a much bigger experience than just showing, ‘This is when he met Bird and this is when he did that’-those needle-drop benchmarks that traditional biopics always have to hit.”

Cheadle found Erin Davis and Wilburn to be enthusiastic about his deviations from standard hagiography. “The biggest boon has been getting their blessing,” he says. “A lot of earlier takes on the material that I saw for this movie, if you weren’t a jazz fan the movie wouldn’t have been for you. I think that’s a very limiting way to tell the story of this person who was a lot bigger than the box that he’s often put in. This is a musician whose taste spanned a lot of different kinds of music and who was such a leader, in that when Miles went left, music went left. So I often asked them, ‘Would your father or your uncle want a story told in this basic way, or something creative and dynamic and exciting and crazy like he was?’ And it was always, ‘Tell that story.’ That was liberating and encouraging to us as filmmakers.”

“You can’t capture Uncle Miles’ life in two hours,” says Wilburn. “You want to get the little nuances. Don thought it would be better to take the autobiography and create something where he reflects on certain things. It’s action-packed, and some of the things in the movie are believable and some aren’t, which I think Uncle Miles would have done. The family is happy.”

In addition to Davis’ family, Herbie Hancock is contributing to the film. Robert Glasper is serving as musical director, writing original music as well as recreating Davis’ music when original recordings don’t fit into the context of the film. Cheadle also hints that he may be calling on some major hip-hop artists to contribute to the soundtrack, though the majority of the film’s music will be recordings from Davis’ own vast catalogue.

“We’re trying to feature the whole breadth and scope of Miles’ music,” says Cheadle. “And if it makes sense when the movie is completed to have a Nas track in there … I don’t want to go as far as some movies that we’ve seen that do that just to try to be hip, but I think those kinds of things are completely appropriate with this artist. I think if Miles was alive today, he’d be working with Skrillex and Robert Glasper and Jay Z. He’d be working with what he thought was the social music of today, trying to connect with as broad an audience as he could.”

Originally Published