Don Cheadle tells me he wanted to make a movie that felt like Miles Davis, and indeed, there's a brief five-second moment in his new film, Miles Ahead, that's the perfect combination of the man's attitude and artistry.
Miles Davis has just pointed a gun at a younger musician, angrily threatening his life. He's walking away, and partially as an afterthought to their argument and partially as if it's the most important thing in the world, he spits out the last word:
“...and stop playing E-flat over D-minor ninth, rookie.”
Directed an co-written by Cheadle, who also stars as the famed jazz trumpeter, Miles Ahead deals with a particularly messy period in the life of jazz titan Miles Davis -- an era in which he locked himself away from the world inside his house, blasted on cocaine, paranoid of everyone and not recording or performing.
The semi-fictional plot involves a Rolling Stone freelancer (Ewan McGregor), who arrives on Davis' doorstep to write a “comeback story” and instead swiftly receives a punch in the face. He soon gets involved in helping Davis a) score cocaine from a young white fan who likes to have sex to his music and b) recover valuable analog tapes of the musician's recent recordings -- tapes worth a $20,000 advance from his label, Columbia Records.
Though Miles Ahead is a thrill ride filled with action-packed escapades, as well as unflinching flashbacks of Davis' physical abuse toward his long-lost wife and muse Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), audiences are left fully aware of Miles' around-the-clock obsession with music and creativity.
Fans of Davis' music won't be disappointed -- there's his Kind of Blue band with Bill Evans at a club; his second quintet with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter rehearsing in Miles' basement; and, in a scene showing Davis-as-composer, a recording session with arranger Gil Evans, with Davis overseeing every note of the large-band score.
I recently spoke with Cheadle on the phone about making Miles Ahead, about public misconceptions of Davis, and which of Davis' songs he's currently listening to.
Note: interview has been edited for length and clarity.
My first question is why you've chosen a period when Miles wasn't making music. I was worried, before I saw the film, that it would be more sensationalistic about his cocaine use and paranoia, and not contain enough of his artistry. But I was glad to see so much of his music in the film. Was that important to you, to get his art in the film?
Well, that's mostly what I wanted the film to be about. I believe that's what Miles was about. Rather than doing something that would be checking off the boxes of the highlights of his life -- and doing something that would give short shrift to each of those, and feel more like the Cliff's Notes of his life -- I just wanted to do something that felt like Miles Davis, and approach the film and my medium in the same way that I feel like he approached his medium.
We looked at films like Toto the Hero, Run Lola Run, movies that were constructed to have a lot of energy and forward momentum. Thematically, for us, we wanted to create something that, at the same time as the narrative, would serve the story of Miles himself coming out of this period, and trying to create momentum to spit himself out of this period of time when he was just laying fallow. We wanted it all to feel like that: his pursuit, the movie's pursuit, all of it to be the same thing.
There's an unpredictable unfolding of Miles' personality in the movie, like a jazz solo. You never know what he's going to do next: he could be violently abusive, both verbally and physically, or he could be a caring musical mentor, even to his enemies. If it was about music, Miles was fully invested.
Yeah. The scenes in there -- at the Columbia recording session, just seeing him in his full bloom of his mastery, and the way that he worked with other musicians, and his generosity are the counterpoints to some of the things that you see that, even for Miles, were regrettable and hard to take. There was something on the other side of all of that tumult and drama.
I have to ask about the great climactic scene in the boxing ring. Not to spoil it too much for those who haven't seen the film, but it's at the peak of his delusions, when all these things begin haunting him. What were your challenges there?
It was insane. Where we shot it was in an abandoned monastery in Cincinnati, very beautiful but very old. Some areas probably not up to code. We had 250 extras, and we put this ring in the center. And right outside of that area were about nine bars. The night that we shot it was the everyone-in-the-streets bar-hop night. Just getting to and from the set from the base camp, which was two miles away, took an hour. Thank God it was near the end, because that one almost broke everything.
Another theme in this film is public perception. You've said it's about "who gets to define who you are." You had to deal with that in making this film, working with Miles' family on this, particularly his nephew. What sort of movie did they want?
I think they weren't sure, necessarily. Not coming from a cinematic background, they just knew that they wanted their father treated in a way, or their uncle treated in a way, that spoke to him and honored his legacy.
My thought was that this has to feel like a composition, and have music, and an attitude that can go anywhere, and be very material. And all building towards something very pointed, which is a new music, a new way to talk about it, a new way that he can come out of this period of time.
Now, that can be somewhat esoteric, and a little nonspecific, and not as easily understood as going, "Miles was nine, he did this, and at 12, he did this, and 15, this" -- things that, like I said, have been done before. It just took a script, and it took us redoubling what it was that we wanted to do, which was do something as Miles, as opposed to trying to be instructional about Miles. There are books that do it better. There's documentaries that do it. There's magazine articles. This needed to be a movie that was engaging, and entertaining, and took you on a ride.
Speaking of public perception, you've done a lot of press for this film, and talked to a lot of people about Miles Davis. What would you say is the biggest public misconception about Miles Davis?
There are some people who can't get past a lot of his behavior, because they're upset by the things that he did in the past. That's something that's everyone's right to react, to respond to those things in the way that they will. The movie doesn't try to defend that. The movie doesn't try to excuse that. To me, just in his history, it allows it to be what it was, and it is not dissimilar to a lot of artists that we could name, that lived in that way, and had those experiences.
But there's not a lot of misconceptions that I get about Miles. I think a lot of people don't really know that much about him. I used to take a poll, and walk down the street, and ask people "Miles Davis, what do you know?" People would say, "Oh, jazz." I'd go, "Okay, that's kind of it, but not totally. What instrument did he play?" A lot of answers would drop off right there. The ones that even did know would say, "Oh, he pokes his cheeks out, right?" I'm like, "Nope. That's Dizzy Gillepsie." It turned out that not a lot of people in the general public even knew much about him at all.
A recurring thing on the film that I noticed was that when people meet Miles Davis, they always say, "It's an honor." That's a phrase you hear over and over in the movie. And oftentimes these are the same people who are trying to take advantage of him or screw him over. Tell me about the decision to include that phrase as a repeating thing.
There's a lot of quotes. In jazz, often you quote something, say, "Someday My Prince Will Come," or a phrase from it, when you're playing another song. It's sort of an homage to the person who played it before you, and it's something that puts the old into the new, and keeps revitalizing it. We looked for places like that -- with phrases, with gestures, and then production design with paintings, props.
We didn't use number generators and dates to tell you where you were, the city you were in, what month it was. We took all of that out and just kind of approached it in a way that -- for us, compositionally, anyway -- was modal. It was just this and that, now and then. That's all it is. This note is the major. It's the minor. It's the same way that "So What" was constructed.
The accepted narrative about Miles during this period in the film is that he was paranoid and thought that everyone was out to get him. But everyone kind of was out to get him, weren't they?
That's the thing, right? Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you're wrong.
Last question for you: what's your go-to album of Miles' right now? If you were put on his music, which album would you pick today and why?
There are so many that, as you say, are go-to. There are so many that I have a strong feeling for, and can't sit sit still when they're on. They just totally permeate me and affect me.
'Miles Ahead' opens Friday, April 8, at Embarcadero Center Cinema and Sundance Kabuki Cinema in San Francisco.