How Don Cheadle Became Miles Davis

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The Oscar-nominated actor opens up about his thrilling new film Miles Ahead, in theaters April 1, and why he doesn’t give a **** about the Oscars. PLUS watch an exclusive song from the film’s soundtrack.

Do not mention the word “biopic” to Don Cheadle. He doesn’t want to hear it. He’s played that tune before, as streetball legend Earl “The Goat” Manigault, Sammy Davis Jr., and of course, his gripping turn as the refugee-sheltering Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, for which he received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination.

“I keep trying to shoot down ‘biopic’ every time somebody says it, but it doesn’t matter,” says Cheadle. “Every time they say a film about a historical figure, that’s how they categorize it. I’d rather people call it ‘historical fiction’ than a ‘biopic.’”

That’s because Cheadle’s new film Miles Ahead, which he co-wrote, produced, directed, and stars in, isn’t your typical biographical picture. While it borrows its title from Miles Davis’s landmark 1957 album, the movie takes place in the late ’70s—a period where Davis withdrew from the public eye and lived, as Cheadle says, like “the Howard Hughes of jazz,” holed up in his apartment engaging in copious amounts of drugs and sex.

“He was silent for five years. He did not touch his horn or play. He just played organ,” says Cheadle. “Vince [Wilburn Jr., Davis’s nephew] tells the story of how, the moment he tried playing again, his whole embouchure had gone, his facility was gone, and he couldn’t make a note. He just cried like a baby.”

Miles Ahead is equal parts drama and thriller, as it jumps back and forth between past moments that shaped Davis—including his turbulent relationship with his wife, Frances (played by the radiant Emayatzy Corinealdi), to the messy present, as the jazz legend teams up with a Rolling Stone journalist (Ewan McGregor) on a mission to retrieve a top-secret recording from a shady record executive (Michael Stuhlbarg). It’s a slice of free-form fiction that aims to capture the mad genius of Miles Davis. Which it does.

The Daily Beast sat down with Cheadle earlier this year to discuss his stunning transformation into the inimitable Miles Davis.

You could have easily gone the Walk the Line route with a Miles Davis film, telling the story of Cicely Tyson saving him from heroin addiction.

I didn’t want to do that. We watched The Dewey Cox Story, and for every filmmaker trying to make a movie about a musician, Walk Hard should be their cautionary tale. Everybody should have to watch that before they make their movie. I heard Danny Boyle say the same thing—that he watched Walk Hard before making Steve Jobs and went, “Oh, no!”

Right. Miles Ahead isn’t like any film about a giant I’ve seen before. The narrative is free-form, and instead of chronicling the famous high points, takes you inside Davis’s head.

As we were looking through the work and read through all the biographies and source materials, the interesting part of his life, to us, was the five-year period where he wasn’t making music. Because on either end of that prolific career, what does it mean when the fount of creativity has shut down? And what’s happening inside of that? Do you want to come back, or do you want to die?

And he did almost die.

He did. He almost died. It seemed to be a good jumping-off point for examining an internal journey that felt universal to us. We can’t all be Miles Davis, but any of us who are creative people know what it means to come face-to-face with that moment of, “I’ve run out of **** to say.”

The film follows Miles Davis during a very fraught time in his career, and one where he’s both a total recluse and a total live wire.

He was the Howard Hughes of jazz. But he was really a G and was behaving how we wish we could have—with no consequences—so there’s a wish-fulfillment element there, too. I didn’t want to show somebody sitting at a piano hitting a chord and going, “No, that’s not it,” and tearing up a piece of paper. Let’s make this the ride. When your guts are churning, that’s a shootout, that’s a fistfight, that’s your love going away, and that’s what allows you to write Bitches Brew.

Getting the estate onboard is a real struggle these days when it comes to making movies about musicians. It’s the reason why nobody’s made a Jimi Hendrix film yet with his actual music. How did you get the Miles Davis estate to back your vision?

We had to talk to the family a lot and hip them to the fact that what we were trying to do was capture the essence and truth of Miles Davis, as opposed to the facts of his life. The facts didn’t matter to us, but the truth of the process did. We thought, let’s do what he did as an artist: Don’t do it the same as you’ve seen it before, don’t worry about mistakes—there are no mistakes, bash headlong into it, show people how the sausage is made, stumble down the stairs until you hit something that kind of works, then get your momentum and run with it. We thought, look, man, if you were in Miles Davis’s band and he heard you playing a solo in your hotel room, and then you came down onstage and played that solo, he’d fire you on the spot. We wanted to make sure that the movie that we made felt like an expression of improvisation.

Speaking of improvisation, there’s a great sequence where Miles Davis is creating Porgy and Bess in the studio that really does a fine job of showcasing his creativity. It reminded me of some of the best scenes of the Brian Wilson flick Love & Mercy.

“The whole work-through of Porgy and Bess, all it said in the script was ‘Miles works with musicians.’ There were no scripted lines. We had no idea what we were going to do until we did it. I just said, ‘Give me a bunch of musicians that can actually play, and we’ll figure it out.’ It will be an actual session.

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SOURCE: The Daily Beast – Marlow Stern