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10 Directors to Watch: Don Cheadle Writes, Directs and Stars in Jazz Biopic ‘Miles Ahead’

'Crash' star picks a specific window in jazz legend Miles Davis' life as the subject of his directorial debut.

10 Directors to Watch
Portrait: Courtesy of Paul Buck/EPA/Newscom

To fully portray the life of Miles Davis, whose artistic career encompassed everything from the height of bebop to the first flowering of hip-hop, and whose personal life saw encounters with drug addiction, racism, self-exile and tumultuous romantic entanglements, would be a tough order even for a five-hour documentary. So in tackling Davis’ story in “Miles Ahead,” which Don Cheadle directed, co-wrote and headlines, the filmmaker decided not to even try.

“Even when Steven Baigelman and I were writing, we would look at each other like, ‘Wait, but don’t we kind of have to talk about …?’” Cheadle says, referencing the numerous career highlights that don’t factor into the film. “And we decided that no, we don’t. Only if it moves this particular story forward.”

Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics ahead of its debut at the New York Film festival, “Miles Ahead” centers on an unlikely period of Davis’ life: The late 1970s, when the trumpeter was creatively spent and living in semi-seclusion.

“His personal life was not dissimilar to many artists who go down that path,” Cheadle says, “where everything is fuel for their art, and that fuel can be burned up and spent if they’re not careful about how they use that fuel, or what it is.

“So I guess you could see it as tragic on a personal level. But I tried not to have that sort of judgment about him, and to go for something that would allow me to use all the music, and externalize an internal journey of how does an artist who has lost his voice get it back.”

Though he never met Davis, the teenage Cheadle did see him perform not too long after the period in which the film takes place, and took a key note from that experience in shaping both the film and his own performance.

“No matter who was soloing, even if Miles was just standing on the wings of the stage talking to somebody or smoking a cigarette, the spotlight always followed him,” he recalls. “You could see little things he was doing, the way he would whisper to musicians and then you’d see the music start to change. He was so self-contained, not overly expressive, with no attempt to ingratiate himself to anyone around him. To me that was a compliment, in a way. I loved that they were kind of rehearsing in front of us.”

Age: 51
Influences: “Toto the Hero,” “All That Jazz,” “Lenny”
Agency: UTA