Don Cheadle on Portraying Miles Davis

Michel Martin (NPR) interviews actor and director Don Cheadle about his recent film, Miles Ahead
Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in Miles Ahead (2015)

Miles Davis never had just one sound. Though his body of work remains singular and unmistakable, he changed gears time after time in a 50-year career. A few times — half a dozen, by his own estimation — he managed to take the entire music world with him. But just like the music, the man himself contained multitudes. Davis was brash. He was abusive. He could be downright mean.

Somehow, actor Don Cheadle manages to capture all of this in a new film called Miles Ahead, which he also wrote, produced and directed. Cheadle says the last thing he wanted to do was make yet another biopic that tries to cover its subject’s entire story but only skims the peaks. Instead, he says, he aimed for a valley — a period in Davis’ life when he was struggling to reconnect with his muse — and used it as a prism for the artist’s unique relationship with craft.

Cheadle spoke with NPR’s Michel Martin about sneaking in trumpet practice between takes of the Avengers films, leaving parts of his script deliberately underwritten, and why the diversity conversation in Hollywood often boils down, in one way or another, to money. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read much more of their conversation below.

Michel Martin: The first point we have to make is that Miles Ahead is not a biopic, not in the conventional sense. How would you describe it for those who haven’t seen it yet?

Don Cheadle: I mean, for me, I wanted to make something that felt impressionistic, and really mercurial, and could go anyplace. And was kind of gangster, and felt like the experiences that I have when I hear people tell stories about Miles Davis, and listen to his music — you know, how incredibly innovative and unexpected he could be. And I thought, if we’re going to do a movie about his life, rather than do something that attempts to sort of check all the boxes — and gives short shrift to every one — focus on a time that would give us the opportunity to explore all facets of his music, and really tell a story that felt creative.

It’s kind of like an emotional biography, in a way. It’s a biography of interior life, but not necessarily of historical facts.

Absolutely, although there are tons of facts in it. We wanted to come up with a way — my writing partner Steven Baigelman and I — where we would externalize an internal process.

The frame of the film is this five-year period when Miles Davis famously released, well, nothing. He kind of lost his muse during those years. Partly it was some health issues, some drug issues. And part of the problem was recovering from a nasty breakup with his wife, Frances Taylor. Why that period in particular?

Because it’s very intriguing to me, when you’re looking at the life of a man who was so prolific, had such an impact on music had such an impactful voice in his métier. Just to go silent? What happens during that period of time? How do you get out of it? What’s going on while you’re in it? What do you say when you’re finished with it? It gave us the opportunity to have the sort of “unreliable storyteller” be Miles Davis himself, take the wheel and tell this reporter, “I’m going to tell that story.” [Read the Full Interview]

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