For Don Cheadle, Miles Davis Film Is Personal

Cheadle tells The Root about his connection to the great jazz musician and what it meant to write, direct and act in Miles Ahead.

miles_davis
Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Don Cheadle was nominated for an Oscar for Hotel Rwanda in 2004. He lost to Jamie Foxx for his performance in Ray. Next year, academy voters will have to seriously consider Cheadle for his passionate portrayal of jazz legend Miles Davis in Miles Ahead. But the actor, director, co-writer and co-producer of the film told The Root he is not looking for accolades: “If my movie makes $100 million or $200 million, but I don’t get nominated, thank you, I’ll take that. Because those are the votes that I count.”

Whether or not Miles Ahead makes the Oscars cut next year, audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, where his movie played in the Spotlight section, gave it lots of love. Selma director Ava DuVernay, who watched the film with The Root, said, “It was a lovely performance from him.” For Cheadle, it was personal: “I wanted to make a movie that Miles Davis would want to star in.”

This is also the first feature film Cheadle has directed. Said Cheadle: “A lot of what I was trying to do, as opposed to mimicry or an impersonation of him, was trying to find, and this may sound like esoteric [bulls–t], I was really trying to pull him close to me. You know, reach out and find a place where we both connected, you know. I’m a musician, and I study and I play.”

Cheadle plays piano, saxophone and drums but took up the trumpet so that he could appear authentic on camera. While he does play in the film, the sound is actually looped with the real music from Davis.

Miles Ahead has been in the works for 10 years, ever since Davis’ nephew Vince Wilburn Jr. said publicly that he wanted Cheadle to play his uncle. At Sundance, Wilburn told The Root, “I think Don was spot-on with it. It moved fast, but the music moved fast. He captured it; he was fearless and he was very engaging with me and the family.”

The film was not easy to finance. Cheadle ran an Indiegogo campaign to raise money. He also said that he had to cast a bankable white actor to get the film made. That actor, Ewan McGregor, plays a journalist who becomes a kind of confidant and running buddy of Davis.

“I thought it would be an exciting place to be and I wanted very much to be part of it. To play the part,” said McGregor at the film’s Sundance premiere, “because it’s great fun, and it really came off the page, and I thought I’d have a lot of freedom with it. Equally, I wanted to be by Don’s side while he went about this and see how he did this. I learned such a great deal from working with Don.” 

Emayatzy Corinealdi, who plays Miles Davis’ first wife, Frances (they were married from 1958 to 1968), said she was attracted to the role because Cheadle is “one of those actors that you really just dream of working with.”

Miles Ahead takes place in the 1970s, during a time when Davis’ drug addiction kept him from playing the trumpet, but the film also shifts back to earlier years and his relationship with Frances. The film is a bit like the jazz musician’s music; it moves fast at times, and that might not be what everyone wants. But Cheadle fully captures Davis, with a raspy voice, Jheri curl wig and ability to pull off playing the trumpet.

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