Miles Beyond the Biopic: Don Cheadle Riffs on a Jazz Legend

The actor makes his directing debut with the long-gestating film about the iconic trumpeter Miles Davis

Don Cheadle has managed to accomplish something no one has been able to pull off in two decades: serve up a bigscreen tale of jazz great Miles Davis.

“Miles Ahead,” in which the versatile actor portrays the legendary trumpeter, marks the directorial debut of Cheadle, who co-wrote the script. The independently financed production, made for $8.5 million, wrapped a monthlong shoot in Cincinnati in mid-August, capping a lengthy gestation period for a project that began eight years ago with Davis’ posthumous induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

The picture, which has yet to score a U.S. distributor, is among a number of film endeavors centering on iconic black musicians — all of them divisive figures who were considered ahead of their time, with none of the films so far connecting with a wide audience. Most recently, “Jimi: All Is by My Side,” starring Andre Benjamin (aka Outkast’s Andre 3000) as Jimi Hendrix, bowed quietly Sept. 26, and has grossed less than $300,000 to date. “Get On Up,” the $30 million James Brown biopic, received a similarly chilly reception, despite major studio support (Universal), grossing little more than its budget since its Aug. 1 debut. Alex Gibney’s low-earning documentary “Finding Fela!” about Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, opened in limited release in early August.

“Nina,” which stars Zoe Saldana as troubled pianist-singer Nina Simone — who like Davis could not be pinned to a specific musical genre — appears to be in a holding pattern, despite being shown to potential distributors at Cannes in May. The movie has been embroiled in controversy ever since it was announced that Saldana, a light-skinned beauty of Dominican descent, would play Simone.

And there will no doubt be legions of naysayers who will object to the way the Davis story is told, given the kind of fanatical following such artists tend to cultivate.

Miles Davis is a hugely significant figure, perhaps one of the most important musicians and cultural figures of the 20th Century,” says Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC who specializes in the study of race and popular culture. “So attempting to reduce someone’s life like Miles into a two-hour film is a challenge in and of itself.”

Bryce Duffy for Variety

Davis’ career spanned some 50 years, and the highlights are many, from his pioneering “Birth of the Cool” sessions starting in 1949, to his first quintet with John Coltrane in the ’50s, his orchestral collaborations with Gil Evans later in the decade, the second great quintet with Herbie Hancock in the ’60s, and his electro-funk Prince of Darkness phase.

Cheadle’s take on Davis, co-written with Steven Baigelman, leans toward the more conceptual, juxtaposing two periods in the trumpeter’s life. “The central story takes place in two days, before he made his comeback (in 1980),” Cheadle says. The “B story,” as he calls it, reflects back to 1956-66, which parallels Davis’ relationship with his first wife, dancer Frances Taylor Davis. “She’s sort of the one that got away,” Cheadle explains, “the love of his life.” Saldana was originally identified to play Frances, but the role ultimately went to Emayatzy Corinealdi (Sundance hit “The Middle of Nowhere”).

Sets and locations in Cincinnati double for Davis’ New York Brownstone, the office of Columbia Records executive George Butler, and for performance spaces in the flashback sequences that could make up as much as 40% of the film.

The filmmakers are adamant that “Miles Ahead” not be considered a biopic, but rather an interpretation of what made the trumpeter tick. “It’s like wall-to-wall truth, not wall-to-wall facts,” explains Cheadle, who says the script ideas he rejected were too traditional in tone, and too aggressive in scope. “We’re much closer to something like historical fiction, where this is a composition of our making, using Miles as our inspiration, our muse, to tell a story from our perspective.”

At the time of Davis’ Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2006, his nephew, Vince Wilburn Jr., a producer on the movie, was asked if a Miles Davis film was in the works. And, as Cheadle recalls now — adding that he didn’t know it then — Wilburn had said, “ ‘Yes, and Don Cheadle’s going to play him.’ ”

Wilburn, who played a role in coaxing the man he calls “Uncle Miles” out of retirement in 1980, confirms the story. “We just knew (Cheadle) would fit,” he says, calling the actor’s performance “his interpretation; his spin.” Adds Erin Davis, the trumpeter’s son and also a producer on the feature: “I can say that the direction of the film is going to be what Miles would have liked.”

There are many reasons Miles Davis stopped performing and recording in 1974, including serious health issues, creative burnout, continued hostility from critics who refused to embrace his electronic music, and perhaps just an old-fashioned midlife crisis (Davis was about to turn 50 at the time, corresponding with Cheadle’s current age).

“Miles had this incredible facility and ability to move to the next thing and the next thing, and not play it safe and not repeat himself,” says Cheadle, whose swaggering self-confidence and wiry intensity appear to make him the ideal candidate for the role. “When that’s exhausted, what do you do? So that to me was a very interesting part of his life.”

Cheadle says he sought directing counsel from some of the helmers he’s worked with, including Steven Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson, Carl Franklin and George Clooney, who knows what it’s like to juggle roles from behind and in front of the camera.

“I knew it on paper; I knew what our schedule was, which was ambitious to say the least,” Cheadle says of the 30-day shoot. “But experience is the real kicker when you’re on the set. It’s like, ‘Wow, OK, there’s no pause’ — and trying to do things that are in some ways diametrically opposed; trying to be immersed in the acting but also have some sort of 10,000-foot perspective.”

Bryce Duffy for Variety

The filmmakers are cagey about what other real-life figures will be depicted in the movie or how much performance footage will be included — pretty much keeping anything other than the story’s broad strokes under wraps. Ewan McGregor reportedly will play a Rolling Stone reporter, loosely based on a real-life person who inadvertently gets Miles out of his isolation, according to Cheadle. That reporter very well could be David Breskin (though Cheadle elaborates by calling the character “an amalgam”), who gained significant access to Davis during and after his seclusion, based on the Jack Chambers biography of Davis, entitled “Milestones.”

Cheadle says he neither glossed over nor dwelled on Davis’ dissolute lifestyle, including excessive cocaine abuse and certain misogynistic tendencies, which the trumpeter described with blunt candor in his autobiography “Miles.” “We’re dealing with everything,” he says. “But it’s not the point of that period.”

A warts-and-all treatment of a pop figure can be problematic when negotiating for rights with that talent’s estate. Biopics on Charlie Parker (“Bird”), Ray Charles (“Ray”) and Johnny Cash (“Walk the Line”) managed to navigate through all the speed bumps. But long-in-the-works films on Janis Joplin and Marvin Gaye, to name just two, seem no closer to realization now than when they were first announced several years ago.

Cooperation of estates that control the artist’s likeness, access to personal archives and, in the case of the Davis family, music publishing rights, is key. The cost of licensing the music alone can be a deal-breaker, although “Jimi” managed to skirt the issue by avoiding any music Hendrix wrote himself. “Miles Ahead” is benefitting from the full cooperation of the Davis estate, controlled by Wilburn, Davis’ kids Erin and Cheryl Davis, and Darryl Porter, general manager of Miles Davis Properties. The estate controls publishing rights to Davis’ music, while Sony owns the master recordings for much of the period covered in the movie. “Columbia and Sony have been very generous in giving us things at a price that doesn’t break the bank,” Cheadle says, “but we absolutely have had to pay for it.”

The estate has aggressively marketed all things Miles since his death in 1991, assisting Sony with exhaustive boxed CD/DVD sets, publishing an art book showcasing Davis’ paintings, and peddling Miles-themed merchandise and mounting annual treks to SXSW to further fan the flame among younger audiences. Porter says Davis “is best-known for being a musician, although we claim he’s a lifestyle.”

Many of these Davis collectibles were offered as incentives to those who contributed to crowdfunding service Indiegogo to help raise more than $343,000 in gap financing for the film. According to Indiegogo’s head of film, Marc Hofstatter, the 2,000-plus funders were driven by social media, with Cheadle boasting some 240,000 Twitter followers, and the Miles Davis website claiming almost two million likes on Facebook. Cheadle invested his own money in the production, but wouldn’t reveal how much. The rest was covered via independent financing from Bifrost Pictures, with a favorable Ohio tax rebate. IM Global handled foreign pre-sales.

Herbie Hancock’s involvement in the film has been described as everything from serving as a consultant to a technical advisor, although he describes his role as non-specific. Whatever original music is being done for the film is from jazz crossover artist Robert Glasper. “The only music I’ve heard so far is what Robert has done,” says Hancock, who was drawn into the project in its very early stages. “It sampled some ideas that Don had discussed with me earlier.”

Adds Cheadle: “Robert Glasper is kind of taking point on actually creating the music and playing that music. Herbie is kind of our shepherd and godfather, making sure we don’t fall off the beam.”

Telling the Miles Davis story has baffled Hollywood for at least 20 years. Former Columbia Records chief Walter Yetnikoff announced a planned biopic in 1993, starring Wesley Snipes. But despite securing rights to Davis’ autobiography, and talking with Spike Lee about directing, the Yetnikoff project, tentatively titled “Million Dollar Lips,” fell through, and his option lapsed. Producer Marvin Worth (“Lenny,” “Malcolm X”) picked up the thread from there, but his death in 1998 halted further progress.

After the Davis estate hooked up with Cheadle, it shopped the idea to the studios, but ultimately decided to take the independent route. “I always felt that if we could do it with creative control, where people like Don could see it through in his own vision, we would have a focused direction,” Erin Davis says.

Wilburn gets more specific. “Hollywood didn’t buy it,” he says. “I stopped going to the pitches, because it was too frustrating to try to convince people who Miles Davis is.”

For his part, Hancock is confident that Cheadle’s take on Davis properly captures the musician’s spirit. “It’s not a documentary of Miles Davis’ life,” he says. “It’s a story that’s got its inspiration from Miles’ music — that kind of in-the-moment creative flow that Miles had. The thing I like about that type of approach is that we don’t have to worry about people saying, ‘Wait a minute, it didn’t happen this way.’”

But Boyd, who has read the script, is skeptical. “It seems as though the period of time that they picked — the late ’70s — is probably the least significant era of Miles’ music,” he says. “If this film actually does make it to the screen, there’s the likelihood that we won’t see any more Miles Davis biopics any time soon. And so the legacy of Miles Davis is resting thus far on this one film, and I don’t think based on what I’ve seen, this film serves the purpose of properly representing what Miles Davis represented to American music and American culture.”

Cheadle is more concerned with making a movie that’s entertaining than with giving a history lesson. “I don’t think the movie can tarnish the legacy,” he says. “To me, Miles’ legacy is his music.”

For its part, the Davis family seems anything but displeased by what has transpired. “I want people to understand how complex he was,” Erin Davis says about his expectations of the film, “and I want them to leave the movie wanting to know more.”

Cheadle is well aware of the tremendous risks involved. “I know I’m dancing in a minefield on this one,” he says, “but I’d own it.”

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