Don Cheadle marks film directorial debut with ‘Miles Ahead’

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis.
Don Cheadle as Miles Davis.

Don Cheadle conducted a little experiment while filming Miles Ahead, his long-in-coming Miles Davis passion project — which he directs, co-writes, co-produces and stars in as the famed jazz trumpeter — that opens April 15 in North Texas.

He would ask random people if they know anything about Davis, one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, a man who launched many musical revolutions over a career that spanned nearly 50 years until his death in 1991.

Davis is the man for whom the swinging title Birth of the Cool — the name of his 1957 compilation — defined a generation. Several of his albums, from Sketches of Spain and Kind of Blue to Bitches Brew, are considered classics, showing up on those best-albums-of-all-time lists.

But acclaim and adulation don’t necessarily translate to widespread recognition.

“I’d just take a poll and stop someone on the street and say, ‘Miles Davis. Who’s that?’ ” recounts Cheadle during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel here on the day before Miles Ahead screened at South by Southwest. “They’d say, ‘A dude who played music, right?’ I’d say, ‘What did he play?’ [They’d say] ‘Uh, sax?’ ”

Even those who knew the correct instrument sometimes missed the mark.

“ ‘He’s the one who puffed his cheeks out, right?’ ” Cheadle recalls some asking, obviously mixing up Davis with another pioneering trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie.

But Cheadle says such lack of knowledge about Davis, who died in 1991, doesn’t anger him and he’s not totally surprised.

“It’s a loss, it’s a disappointment and it’s to our own detriment,” he says. “But this is highly structured and organized [music] and it’s as complex as classical music. It’s not three-minute hits ... And when you’ve taken music out of the public schools and art programs out of the schools, people’s connections to the physical nature of music and the way it’s created, it makes sense that the continuum that I was part of when I was a kid has been broken.”

Bringing Miles to the screen

Miles Ahead could go some way in rectifying the situation even if, as a relatively low budget indie film ($10 million, of which $350,000 was raised via Indiegogo), it’s not going to be landing in every multiplex alongside Captain America: Civil War, the upcoming mega-budget Marvel action sequel in which Cheadle also co-stars.

Rocketing between the late ’70s (when Davis went into a five-year period of seclusion) and the late ’50s (when he was involved with dancer Frances Taylor, played by Emayatzy Corinealdi), Miles Ahead is a loopy, unconventional look at the man’s life. It plays as much like a buddy-heist movie — Davis and Dave Braden, a composite journalist character played by Ewan McGregor, careen around 1970s New York on the hunt for Davis’ stolen master tapes — as a music biopic.

It comes along at a time when two other narrative films about late jazz figures are getting released: the much-debated Nina, starring Zoe Saldana as singer Nina Simone; and Born To Be Blue, featuring Ethan Hawke as trumpeter/singer Chet Baker.

Cheadle, 51, grew up playing alto saxophone in a family in which Davis’ music was part of the household soundtrack. “I don’t remember the first time I heard him,” he says. “It was probably before I had conscious awareness of it because it was the music that my parents played.”

That fandom planted the seed of making a film about the man behind the trumpet. It took a decade for him to get Miles Ahead made. He had long been in talks with the Davis family and finally got it to agree to the project. Davis’ nephew Vincent Wilburn Jr. is one of the producers.

But Cheadle wanted it to be different; to have the feel of a dizzying, improvisatory Davis session rather than the rote, filmic equivalent of a Wikipedia entry. He wanted it to reflect Davis’ “gangster” attitude, to be the kind of film in which Davis might have wanted to star.

“When they were amenable to the approach I wanted to take — not a cradle-to-grave, paint by numbers biopic but something that felt impressionistic, that felt like what his music feels to me — I saw a lane,” Cheadle recalls.

Then he zeroed in on the period when Davis disappeared from public view.

“It was really about doing the research and bumping into this period of time when he was silent,” he explains. “It was being intrigued by how one of our most prolific artists of the 20th century shut it down. Why, how, and what was happening during that time? How do you get out of it? Do you get out of it? And when you do get out of it, what are you coming out with? All of that was interesting to me. ... That particular part of the story and narrative felt like it was a really good jumping-off point to try and tell the story.”

Reality vs. fiction

While there seems to be general consensus that, as an actor, Cheadle deftly disappears into Davis’ character, there’s sharp division over the liberties that Cheadle as a director/writer has taken with the musician’s life. The New York Times declared that “critics may howl but they’ll also miss the pleasure and point of this playfully impressionistic movie.”

One of those howling critics is Slate’s Fred Kaplan, who savaged it as “an adolescent’s fantasy, full of car chases and gunfights — that tells little about Miles Davis and nothing about the vitality of his music.”

Cheadle admits that Davis purists are rankled and some have made their displeasure known. “Very few people come up to me and tell me something to my face,” he says with a laugh. “I know that Vince has been dealing with a lot of people saying what the movie should be, what you can and cannot do, and who does he think he is? How can you make a movie about Miles Davis and not talk about John Coltrane and not talk about Bitches Brew and not talk about Charlie Parker? There have been many places where that has been done. I didn’t want to do something that had been done everywhere.”

The other element that has raised eyebrows is the presence of McGregor in a role that gets as much screen time as Cheadle’s. Cheadle candidly told Rolling Stone that “to get this film financed, we needed a white co-star. And until Ewan came on, until we had cast the proper white co-star, there was no Miles Davis movie.”

In Austin, he elaborates that such a necessity didn’t depress him about the realities of Hollywood. “I’ve been in this business for 30 years so that singular thing wouldn’t be the thing to depress me,” he says. “And I guess the statement could have been made that any international name with a supposed broad international appeal could work.

“I probably could have hired a Latino actor if the metrics had come back that that person would have performed big overseas or an Asian actor if we were going to try and focus this movie more on Japan and have it be a movie about Miles’ time in Japan and the Japanese relationship with Miles. But it was really about the necessity of a movie that would be deemed as niche and small [and] opening it up to an international market.”

Cheadle says that while the movie journalist may be a screenwriter’s concoction, he is representative of several real figures in Davis’ world. “Steven Baigelman, who co-wrote the script, and myself created him but he’s not out of whole cloth. He’s a part of the people who were trying to get into Miles’ life, before that time, during that time, and after that time ... Dave Braden is a lot of different people.”

In the director’s chair

While Cheadle has directed two episodes of House of Lies, the Showtime series in which he stars, Miles Ahead marks his first attempt at a feature film. There were times when he thought wearing four hats — writing, acting, producing, directing — was too much and he wanted to give that last one to someone else.

“Somewhere along the way, just the anticipation of the arduous task that lay ahead and for self-preservation and a bit of quality control, I thought it may be better to have someone sit in the seat and have me focus on the acting,” he says. “But it didn’t pan out. Everybody we had considered for one reason or another was not able to step up.

“Had the movie gone away, I may have been relieved and felt like I gave it all I could and it didn’t happen. But, at some point, it became a mandate to get it made and I said, ‘Whatever it’s going to take, let’s just strap the thing on and let’s go.’”

While Cheadle remains a busy actor, he still wants to keep directing — though without the headaches that came with getting his Miles Davis story onto the screen.

“There are a couple of prospects out there,” he says. “That’s something I will pursue, but not in this way. I don’t need to do it that way again. That was a bit much.”

Cary Darling: 817-390-7571, @carydar