Don Cheadle Brings Miles Davis to the Big Screen in 'Miles Ahead'

In his directorial debut, Don Cheadle takes on iconic jazz composer and trumpeter Miles Davis during one of the most troubled periods of his life.
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Don Cheadle Photo

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in the biopic Miles Ahead.

Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s first turn as director, plays like a buddy action movie, rather than a biopic about the iconic jazz composer and trumpeter Miles Davis. In a press conference at the 2015 New York Film Festival, the actor, who co-wrote with Steven Baigelman (Brother’s Keeper, 2002), and who portrays Davis in the film, said that the screenplay was inspired by the “stories in my mind when I listen to his music.” Cheadle’s imagination led him to one of the most troubled periods in Davis’s life, between 1976 and 1980, when his drug addiction made him unable to play his horn or to compose. 

A trendsetter and iconoclast, Davis is credited with originating “modal jazz,” where one or two scales or “modes” are used to replace harmonic structure as the basis of a song’s theme. For the uninitiated, that style is best defined by “So What?” on the Kind of Blue album. Bits of that song and other cuts from Davis’s masterwork album are heard in Miles Ahead. Jazzheads will immediately note that the music often does not match the eras depicted in the film, although it is always used effectively. That is a tribute to Cheadle’s knowledge of Davis, and terrific work by composer Robert Glasper and Oscar-award winning sound editor Skip Lievsay.

All biographers (especially cinematic ones) take poetic license, but Cheadle creates an entirely fictional relationship between Davis and a Rolling Stone reporter named Dave (Ewan McGregor). This mismatched duo and their wildly improbable adventures involving guns and cars are necessitated by the unfortunate decision to set the film at a creative low point, when Davis turned 50, the age Cheadle is now, the age of summation and reflection.

Miles Ahead shifts between the “present,” the 1970s, and earlier periods in the artist’s life, sometimes with no obvious visual or aural cues. Triggered by events or by drug-induced stupors, these extended flashbacks are mostly about Davis’s first marriage to Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). She was a member of the famed African-inspired troupe, the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. (A head shot of Taylor appears on Davis’s album, Some Day My Prince Will Come.) Other memories are of Davis’s many extra-marital affairs, famed recording sessions, and his long struggle with debilitating hip pain from an osteoarthritic condition.

Cheadle accurately depicts Davis’s sexism and his penchant for violence. In the backward glance to Taylor, the trumpeter asks her to give up dancing in order to be with him. She does, but their marriage ends, as it did in real life, when Davis brandishes a knife in a jealous, drug-infused rage. Another flashback chronicles the 1959 incident outside the original Birdland jazz club in New York City that led to Davis’s arrest and beating by police. A scene set in the 1970s in which Davis demands money from Columbia Records, gun in hand, is amusing but imagined. During what biographer Ian Carr (Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography, Harper Collins, 1998) calls Davis’s “silent years,” he was awarded a status at Columbia then shared only with classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz—he was paid regularly through a “fund” the recording company created for him.

In the film, Davis’s limp is attributed, in part, to a gun battle at a boxing match in New York City in which a bullet enters his hip. (Production took place in Cincinnati, its exteriors not a convincing double for New York.) With Dave lending support, Davis retrieves a stolen tape of a secret recording session. While the events are fictional, the tape is not: In 1978, while Davis was recovering from his addiction, he began to play the organ, and taped part of an improv with guitarist Larry Coryell, bassist T.M. Stevens, and drummer Al Foster. In the movie, he finally plays that tape for Dave and a young trumpeter (Lakeith Lee Stanfield) as proof that even in a cocaine haze, he was working. 

Cheadle gives a credible performance as Davis, the only well-drawn character in Miles Ahead. McGregor has inspired moments as the stereotypical and morally bankrupt reporter. Up and comer Corinealdi (The Middle of Nowhere, 2014) as Taylor is essentially eye candy. The film is aided by Roberto Schaefer’s excellent cinematography (Quantum of Solace, 2008) and Hannah Beachler’s (Fruitvale Station, 2013) skillfully designed sets. It is Beachler’s work, and Gersha Phillips’s (The Whistleblower, 2010) eye-popping costumes for Davis that often signal shifts between the movie’s “present” and the 1960s-era flashbacks.

The score in Miles Ahead is sublime, a mix of archival recordings of Sketches of Spain, Kind of Blue and Agartha, among others, and newly recorded music or orchestrations featuring eclectic composer-pianists Glasper and Herbie Hancock. The latter played with Davis as late as 1971, but mainly between 1964 and 1968.  Cheadle, who plays saxophone, told Downbeat Magazine that he learned to play the trumpet for his portrayal of Davis, but that he is not heard on the film’s soundtrack. Cheadle credits Vince Wilburn, Davis’s nephew, and a drummer, for founding the project that became Miles Ahead.

As a child in 1979, Wilburn accompanied his mother Dorothy (Davis’s sister) to New York City; along with Cicely Tyson, they helped Davis kick his drug habit. According to Carr, Wilburn’s musical talent was nurtured somewhat by Davis, but it was the boy who played an important role in his uncle’s life, showing so much interest in his music that Davis again picked up his trumpet. The scene of the young trumpeter who, near the end of the movie, listens to the stolen tape and begins playing, may be a homage to Wilburn.

Don Cheadle Photo

Cheadle, who co-wrote Miles Ahead with Steven Baigelman, says the screenplay was inspired by the “stories in my mind when I listen to his music.”

The music leads the storytelling in Miles Ahead, which is named for one of Davis’s albums. That begs the question of whether the film will appeal only to fans. Actually, Cheadle’s approach of ignoring chronology, and having the music evoke the images, makes Davis’s work accessible to all audiences. The screenplay is another matter. One wishes the filmmaker-biographers would have dropped the buddy plot and left us alone with Davis and his memories.

This article was originally published in October 2015 when Miles Ahead premiered at the New York Film Festival.

Miles Ahead opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on April 1.