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“What's a labor of love? Take a look at what Don Cheadle does in Miles Ahead. Not only does he act the hell out of the role of the late jazz trumpeter Miles Davis — the raspy voice, the death stare, the hair, the attitude, the cocaine-fueled paranoia. Cheadle is also the director (his first time at bat), co-writer and co-producer of the movie. That means he gets the lion's share of the credit — and also the blame. As an actor, Cheadle is flawless, letting us feel we're really hanging with a musical genius possessed of a volatile temper and a talent to match. Like Born To Be Blue, Miles Ahead is allergic to all things biopic, especially the cheap psychology and the effort to tie up a complex life with a neat bow.”
- Rolling Stone Magazine
Don Cheadle's cool, vibe-y biopic Miles Ahead paints an accurate portrait of Miles Davis, the late jazz musician's family told USA TODAY on the red carpet of the Los Angeles premiere. No, Cheadle didn't pay them to say that-- relatives of Miles were actually involved with Cheadle's script-to-screen process.
“Selected as the closing-night feature in last fall’s New York Film Festival, “Miles Ahead” is an obvious labor of love, born out of Cheadle’s lifelong obsession with Davis’ groundbreaking music and troubled personal life. Although the movie can’t avoid all the pitfalls of the showbiz biopic, it’s a subtle and complicated example of the form that gracefully weaves together numerous episodes and historical periods, and never seeks to whitewash the more painful aspects of Davis’ story. In the present tense of “Miles Ahead,” it’s about 1980 and the trumpeter has become a Howard Hughes-style recluse, living alone in his New York brownstone buffered by cocaine and alcohol, and refusing to surrender the tapes for his long-contemplated comeback album.
A Scottish music journalist played by Ewan McGregor (and we’ll get to the controversy surrounding that role) gets into Davis’ house and at least partway into his confidence, and unleashes numerous adventures along with a stream of almost Fellini-esque reminiscence and association. So Cheadle’s screenplay (written with Steven Baigelman) locates Davis at a personal and professional low point, but weaves in bits and pieces from throughout his remarkable career: the bebop years after World War II, the extraordinary small groups of the early ‘60s, the symphonic orchestrated works created with Gil Evans (Davis himself always preferred “Sketches of Spain” to the immortal 1959 sextet LP “Kind of Blue”) and the then-controversial jazz-rock “fusion” albums of the ‘70s, which alienated much of his middle-class white audience and anticipated musical innovations that still lay ahead.
If you’ve ever seen Cheadle act in anything, I hardly need to tell you that he grabs your attention and holds it throughout the film. You could say that Miles Davis is a role he was born to play, but then again Cheadle could play anything. (If given a role as an Irish leprechaun or a Nazi officer, he’d find a way to make you believe it.) He doesn’t look much like Miles Davis, but he captures the musician’s door-creak voice and hesitant body language without making it feel like mimicry. To give a performance this layered and complex and unstinting while also directing the film around it, which is risky and imaginative and full of life, testifies to impressive powers of concentration.
“If you’re gonna do a film about Miles, it’s gotta represent what Miles stood for.”
- Herbie Hancock
“If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude, man.”
That's Miles Davis, as played by Don Cheadle, talking to a TV producer who is rehearsing the intro to an interview he's about to tape with the legendary trumpeter. The scene occurs near the beginning of Miles Ahead, Cheadle's biographical film about Davis' life and music. The lesson in "cool" can be taken as a mission statement for both Davis the musician and Cheadle the actor* who is making his debut as a director with the film. Critics and the movie-going public will certainly debate the liberties it takes with the factual record in pursuit of larger truths about Davis (1926—91). But one thing is indisputable: Miles Ahead is anything but corny.
When the film premiered in October at the 2015 New York Film Festival, the festival’s selection committee raved that "every second of Cheadle s cinematic mosaic is passionately engaged with its subject: this is, truly, one of the finest films ever made about the life of an artist." Within days, Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film, which will open April 1.
Cheadle knows a thing or two about biographical films. The acclaimed actor was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of hotelier Paul Rusesabagina in 2004's Hotel Rwanda, and he won a Golden Globe (and earned an Emmy nomination) for his role as Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1998 HBO movie The Rat Pack.
Co-writing the Miles Ahead script with screenwriter Steven Baigelman, Cheadle deliberately avoided the usual cradle-to-grave biopic approach, opting instead to focus on just three days in the life of Davis in the late has become know as his "silent" period.
Following a press screening in New York, Cheadle answered the inevitable questions about how much the story is invented by saying that "to some degree all biopics are historical fiction." In order to be true to Davis' continual quest to push the music forward, Cheadle felt it was necessary to expand the conventional idea of a biographical film and "to make a movie that Miles would have wanted to see — or star in."
Although the public verdict is not yet in, Davis' family and friends feel that Cheadle hit a homerun. Miles' nephew, drummer/record producer Vince Wilburn Jr., who helps run Miles Davis Enterprises and is one of the film's producers, said, "I think Don f****n' nailed it, period. Don is a badass, and I love him. And you can quote me on that."
Reached by phone at his West Hollywood home, keyboardist Herbie Hancock—who worked extensively with Davis and served as a music consultant for the film — said, "I loved Don's approach to the film. It's not historical, not a documentary. I love the fact that he was being so creative, as a tribute to Miles' own creativity. If you're going to do a film about Miles, it's gotta represent what Miles stood for. He would absolutely have dug this approach. As a matter of fact, Miles would probably have gotten mad if it had been done [as a conventional biopic]. Miles would have said"—and here he imitated Davis' distinctive, gravelly voice—'F*** that.'"
Despite the way the film embellishes the record, one thing that feels authentic is the music. Cheadle, a musician himself, hired pianist Robert Glasper to compose the score. Working together, they took impressive pains to get the music right, whether the scene employs original Davis recordings or Glasper's score, which includes compositions that simulate the trumpeter's various eras and styles so faithfully that they could easily be mistaken for lost Davis recordings. For the score's critical trumpet parts, Glasper turned to Keyon Harrold,
his former classmate at The New School for Jazz & Contemporary Music. He also assembled a stellar group of musicians to simulate the sound of Davis' groups from the various eras depicted in the film .
As the film begins, Davis, then in his early fifties, hasn't touched the trumpet in three years. He has become a recluse, holing up in his disheveled, roach-infested town-house on West 77th Street in Manhattan, where he spends his days snorting cocaine, consuming copious amounts of alcohol and painkillers to deaden the pain from a degenerative hip disorder, and fending off friends, fans, creditors and record company executives with equal hostility.
Forcing his way into this mess is a freelance journalist named Dave Brill (played by Ewan McGregor), who claims to be on assignment from Rolling Stone magazine in order to write the story of Davis' alleged "comeback." After a violent initial confrontation, the mismatched pair gradually develop a wary respect for each other. The two eventually become entangled in a mission to reclaim a tape of Davis compositions that has been stolen by an unscrupulous record producer named Harper and the gifted young trumpeter, Junior, whom he is promoting.
Beneath this melodramatic surface, however, a more important drama unfolds. Davis is haunted by memories, shown in numerous flashbacks, of his past triumphs and humiliations. He is particularly pained by his failed marriage to the lovely dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), whose face famously adorns the cover of the 1961 album Someday My Prince Will Come, and who was subjected to his repeated physical abuse. We also get to see him creating some of the music that made him one of the most important musicians of the 20th century.
Cheadle's movie is many things: a buddy action movie; a love story; a feast for fans of the music; and potentially an eye-opening experience for millennial kids who have not yet discovered Davis' oeuvre. But ultimately, Miles Ahead is a meditation on creativity, the mysteries and loneliness of genius—and the toll it can take on an artist's personal life and family.”