There’s a rumor Don Cheadle would like to put to rest. It was never “his” dream to play jazz great Miles Davis. Instead, it was the people who knew Davis that planted the seed with Cheadle. After years of script revisions, a successful Indiegogo campaign, and a coveted distribution deal, Miles Ahead arrives in theaters today. Cheadle, who’s making his directorial debut, spoke with ESSENCE about his approach to directing, casting, and filming an epic jam session:
On mirroring Miles Davis’ iconoclastic, restless approach to music-making to own film making:
I was intent on creating something that felt like Miles as opposed to doing a film that was didactic and saying, “Well, this is when he met Charlie Parker and then he met John Coltrane and then he left Julliard.” There are books that cover that area well, there’s documentary, there’s radio plays, there’s articles. There are a lot of places where if you need to check out all the achievements or get a Cliffs Note of his life, you can do that. I wanted to do something that felt impressionistic and expansive and creative and dynamic. Frances [Miles Davis’s first wife; she’s played by Emayatzy Corinealdi] can be doing a pirouette towards Miles in the past and fall and Dave Braden can finish her fall in the present, you know? Miles loses Frances in a spin and then it wakes Dave [played by Ewan McGregor] up out of a thing. I wanted to feel like you’re walking around in Miles Davis’ brain.
Don Cheadle Says He Was a ‘Nervous Wreck’ Making Miles Davis Biopic
On finally saying “yes” to playing Miles Davis:
When I did The Rat Pack [in 1998], I had to play drums it so I bought a drum kit so I could learn to use them. I didn’t know how to set them up so I called my friend and he said, “I’ll find somebody to set your drums up.” I was like cool. He shows up at the house with Tootie Heath [who played with John Coltrane]. I was like, “Oh, hey. What’s up Tootie Heath? I know who you are.” He sets up my drums and he’s tuning my toms and he’s like, “Hey, you ever think about doing the Miles Davis movie?” I’m like, “No, I never thought about it.”
After that, the idea was coming in from a lot of different places for years. Every eight or nine months somebody would say, “Miles Davis” and I kind of felt like he was coming to me. Then this announcement was made and I was like I guess that’s what’s supposed to happen.
I met with the Davis family and they pitched some ideas that, to me, felt too conventional. I said we got to do something that feels like your uncle, feels like your dad, that’s wild, that’s inventive, unexpected, and startling, and weird, and crazy. I wanted to do something like that. I want to do a gangster movie with Miles Davis. I want to do a heist movie with Miles Davis. I want to do a movie that Miles Davis wanted to star in—“Don Cheadle is Miles Davis as Miles Davis in.” That’s what I want to do. They said, “Oh, that sounds great.” I said, “Okay, when you get something like that call me and we’ll do it.”
On the way home my phone rang and they were calling me as I was about to call them and say, “I don’t think anybody is going to come and pitch that. I think I have to do that.” They said, “Yeah, that’s what we were going to say. You have to do it.”
On casting Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances Taylor and LaKeith Stanfield as protégé Junior:
Before I saw Emayatzy’s audition, I saw her movie Middle of Nowhere. But the first day we actually met was the first day she shot [the scene where] she was running out of the house screaming. That was her first day. Welcome to the set.
Lakeith I cast off tape. His audition was really interesting because he shot it himself at his house and was reading the lines with an off-camera a dude. It was kind of an intense scene. Even on the computer, he jumped off the screen. I was just like, “Woah, who is this dude?” I met him and I was like, “Man, that was a really, really strong audition. Who were you reading with because that dude was good too. Can I put him in the movie?” He goes, “Oh, that was me too.” “Sorry, what?” He was like, “Yeah, I just recorded the other part on an iPhone and played it and acted back to my iPhone voice.”
On filming the jam session with music greats Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and newcomers such as Esperanza Spalding, Gary Clark, Jr., Robert Glasper:
Although most of the movie was shot in Cincinnati, we shot that scene at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music]. On the stage was Esperanza Spalding, Gary Clark Jr, Antonio Sanchez—who is coming off Birdman—Herbie, Wayne, Robert Glasper and Keyon Harrold. Actually it’s Keyon who did the overdub for a lot of the trumpet playing when we weren’t using Miles’ music. I’m actually playing but we’re not using my sound. We’re using Miles when it’s Miles. Keyon, he also does the music for Junior… He was doing magic.
On wanting to direct again:
Not like this. I have potentially a job coming up that I’ve been offered. Since this, I’ve been offered several things to direct, which is great, and I’ll probably take it on after a long nap.
Cori Murray (@corimurray) is the Entertainment Director at ESSENCE magazine.