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Friday, April 15, 2016

Chatting with Don Cheadle about Miles Ahead

Posted By on Fri, Apr 15, 2016 at 12:00 PM

click to enlarge Left to right: Script Supervisor Belle Francisco and Director/Actor Don Cheadle - BRIAN DOUGLAS, COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • Brian Douglas, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
  • Left to right: Script Supervisor Belle Francisco and Director/Actor Don Cheadle

If Miles Ahead is your first introduction to the music of Miles Davis, you won’t find an origin story of either the man or the musician. The film includes only one backstory: Davis’ marriage to his first wife Frances. From 1958 to 1968, their marriage overlapped with the albums he made at Columbia Records. Frances appears on two of those covers: "Someday My Prince Will Come" and "E.S.P.". The imaginative life of the film lives there, inside this marriage that allowed for both the cultivation and subsequent destruction of the muse.

At least that was my take on it. When I spoke with the actor Don Cheadle, he saw things differently. He not only plays Davis but also directed this, his first feature film. Cheadle said, “It's actually not about the destruction of it, though that was a part of it. It's about the creation that was occurring while he was with her. The creativity of that period of time that she represented, what she introduced Miles to. She introduced him to Flamenco and bullfighting. The period of time they were together was when Miles had some of his most prolific musical expressions.”

Watching the actress who plays Frances is like witnessing the birth of a star. Her name is Emayatzy Corinealdi and her performance is intelligent, fierce and full of grace. Cheadle saw her in a movie called Middle of Nowhere and saw that “she had this quiet fire, you know? It wasn't overpowering. She wasn't chewing up the scenery. She was just strong and felt like she had this comportment and knew who she was. There was no question to me who the right choice was for the movie.” 
click to enlarge Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances Taylor - BRIAN DOUGLAS, COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • Brian Douglas, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
  • Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances Taylor

Miles Ahead is an unconventional biopic. It nestles the story of his first marriage, omitting any mention of his second or third, inside an altogether different movie, a conventional buddy pic. The narrative begins in the 1970s during Davis’s reclusive, musically unproductive, drug addicted phase. The memories of Frances haunt him while a reporter named Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), on the hunt for a story, suddenly becomes his constant companion. It was puzzling to see McGregor on screen knowing that the poet Quincy Troupe had also developed a screenplay based on his own memoir, “Miles and Me”, about his friendship with Davis.

click to enlarge Left to right: Don Cheadle Ewan McGregor as Dave Braden - BRIAN DOUGLAS, COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • Brian Douglas, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
  • Left to right: Don Cheadle Ewan McGregor as Dave Braden
Troupe summed up his memoir like this, "It's about a friendship. A hard won friendship between two black men. Both of them artists. Through that friendship, the film will explore Miles' life." Instead of that story (rights issues notwithstanding), Cheadle made a film about a fictional white journalist and Miles. He has spoken publicly about the realities of needing a white co-star to finance the film. But when asked if the story of two black men was ever an option, he explained, “That was a consideration. Ultimately, I thought given Miles' history, given what we were going to talk about and explore with race in the movie itself, that the juxtaposition with Dave would be an interesting note that came at it from another angle.”

The angle being that of white ownership of Davis’s music. An ambitious reporter wanting a story, not his friendship, runs parallel to the white record producer who, at one point in the film, tells him, “We own your music.” Instead of chronologically detailing facts and dates and places, the film contends with Davis’s period of isolation and his struggle to overcome this overwhelming sense of oppression. It documents a fallow period in an artist’s psyche and noisily considers a way out of it.

Cheadle expanded on what his goal in making the film was. “To create something that felt like we were inside of a Miles Davis composition, and that we were a part of this creative spark that he was attempting to reignite for himself so that he could figure out what to say and how to find his voice again.” Even if you only learn the broad strokes of Davis’s life, you’ll listen to the music.

As Cheadle points out, “When you go to the film and hear all of the music that we used in the film, from top to bottom, that's 99.9 percent Miles Davis music. You will hear for yourself the influence that he had, and the ways that music was shaped around the things that he was playing with.” The major accomplishment of Miles Ahead might be this simple: it will inspire someone square and ignorant of jazz to seek out and play “Someday My Prince Will Come”, someone who’ll marvel at the love now lost that inspired its creation.  

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