'Follow Your Instinct': Don Cheadle captures the restless rhythms of Miles Davis

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Don Cheadle didn’t originate the idea of playing Miles Davis in a film; folks had been suggesting it to him for years. When Cheadle auditioned for a part in Ali, the writers told him he’d be great at playing Miles Davis. Legendary drummer Tootie Heath was helping Cheadle set up his drums to rehearse for his role as Sammy Davis, Jr. in The Rat Pack and asked, “Hey, you ever think about doing a Miles Davis movie?” Then, in 2006, when Davis was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a reporter asked his nephew whether a Miles Davis film would be forthcoming. The nephew declared that only one actor could play his uncle: Don Cheadle.  

Calling it fate, Cheadle contacted the family. Negotiations ensued, and Miles Ahead emerged: Cheadle’s personal interpretation of Davis’ creative life focusing on the five years in the late ’70s when the artist wasn’t creating anything at all. The film time-warps from the real-life relationship between Davis and his wife Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to a fictional buddy-buddy caper in which Davis and Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) try to recover some stolen session tapes from Columbia Records.

With a soundtrack that combines Miles’ recordings with Keyon Harrold overdubbing for Cheadle’s sound (Cheadle worked so hard on learning the trumpet that he misses it when he doesn’t have it with him), Miles Ahead ends with a jam session including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spaulding, Gary Clark Jr., Antonio Sanchez, Robert Glassford and Harrold, all of whom did it for “the love of the game,” according to Cheadle, who was working on such a low budget that he couldn’t afford to pay them.

Cheadle’s aim was to make a movie that the iconoclastic, ever-inventive jazz legend would want to star in, rather than a standard biopic. What he ended up with is a great film.

Judy Gelman Myers of the website Director Talk recently spoke to Cheadle and his co-star, Emayatzy Corinealdi.

Director Talk: There were many, many things I liked about the film, but the thing I liked best was the energy. It seemed to me that your filmmaking techniques mirrored Miles’ iconoclastic, restless approach to music-making, so you essentially had one art form echoing another. Am I reading something into the film, or was that your intention?

Don Cheadle: That’s exactly what the intent was—to create something that felt like Miles, as opposed to doing a didactic document saying: This is when he met Charlie Parker, and then he met John Coltrane, and then he left Juilliard… There are books that cover that area well, there are documentaries, there’s a radio play, there are articles; there are a lot of places where you can check off all of his achievements or get a CliffNotes of his life if you need to do that. I wanted to do something that felt impressionistic and expansive and creative and dynamic. Frances [Frances Taylor Davis, Miles Davis’ wife] can be doing a pirouette toward Miles in the past and fall, and Dave Braden [Ewan McGregor’s character, a fictional Rolling Stone reporter] can finish her fall in the present, or Miles loses Frances in a spin and then it wakes Dave up. I wanted to feel like you’re walking around in Miles Davis’ brain.

DT: Emayatzy, what was the most difficult moment in the script for you?

Emayatzy CorinealdiThe thing that I was so intrigued about was Frances saying yes when he asked her to stop dancing. When that scene happens in the bathtub, it was just kind of being left speechless. You don’t really know what to say, what to do, how to respond, and that was the hardest part for me just because of the nature of what you’re being asked to do.

What was so interesting to me about her story was the career she was building for herself. This was a woman who was one of the original members of West Side Story and worked with Sammy Davis, Jr. in Mr. Wonderful and all of that, so she had this career that was burgeoning. In that time period, a lot of women [dropped their careers], but it’s also not as common for them to have the career that she was beginning to build, so that might have been the hardest part for me.

I was telling Don the other day that while I was watching the movie, it was hard for me to see the part where he hangs up with me and in the next scene he’s in bed with all these other women. It shocked me watching it. My God, that’s what you’re doing? I know it’s in the script, but seeing it just gave me a different reaction. So all of that was very difficult for me.

DT: What was Wynton Marsalis’ contribution to the film?

DC: He’s an old friend, and he gave me my trumpet. When I started to learn to play, I called him up and said, “I want to get a trumpet. Can you just point me in the right direction?” He said, “I’m going to get your trumpet.” It was like, you can’t buy trumpets around me. I’ll get you your axe, don’t worry about it. I got my new horn, my Monette—they’re one-of-a-kind trumpets—when he called the trumpet maker and said, “Hey, Don needs a horn. I know it takes you a year to make them, but he needs one now.” So they gave me the shop horn, which was their demo horn, but everybody’s played on that horn. Arturo Sandoval’s played on that horn. I almost didn’t want to touch it. This thing is amazing; it’s better than a new horn. It has high As left it in by some guys from before.

DT: The official Miles Davis website includes the line “Miles forever forged ahead, trusting and following instinct until the end.” But you were also working on instinct. Was there ever a point where you felt like Miles’ instinct was going in one direction and your instinct was going in another? If that happened, what did you, as an artist, do about it?

DC: To the artists he worked with, Miles’ instructional instinct was always “Follow your instinct.” That’s why John Coltrane sometimes got to solo for twenty minutes while these other band members are going, “Why you let this dude play twenty-minute solos?” “Cause he’s trying to find something, he’s hunting for something, and I’m going to give him the space to figure it out.” Herbie [Hancock] said that one of the first times he played with Miles, they went out on stage and Miles just starts playing. Herbie is nineteen, twenty years old, and he says, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to play.” And Miles says, “Piano, motherfucker.” Miles’ attitude was: I hired you ’cause you can play. You’re the man. Do it. I want you to follow your instinct, ’cause then I can follow you. I need the thing to push back against to interact with. I don’t want to be here dictating what has to happen. When Tony Williams was leading rehearsals dictating the way charts would go, he was seventeen years old. Miles let a seventeen-year-old drummer lead the band, basically. He said, “I’ll follow you. You tell me what to play. I’m going to follow you.” Who does that? Miles’ dictum was always: You follow your own instinct.

We were at a press conference at SXSW with Erin Davis, Miles’ son. They were asking him what about the way the movie was made reminded him of his dad, and he said, “I watch the movie and I don’t feel I’m looking at Miles Davis. I know that’s Don in there as Miles Davis. I lived with my father, and I know that’s not my father, but Miles wouldn’t want Don to be him. He’d want Don to be himself being Miles.” It’s like, “Do your version of me.”

What I wanted to really find was the place where Miles and I could—in my imagination anyway—intersect; I didn’t want to do something that was just pure mimicry. We could go to Vegas and find a cat that could probably do a Miles Davis spot-on, and you’d be like, that’s walking and talking Miles Davis. I wanted to try to find out what was going on underneath there and do Miles Davis and do the things that he did and sort of be him as close as I could with my creativity, as opposed to just trying to mimic the man perfectly.

DT: You wrote the script to musical cues. Can you talk about that process?

DC:A lot of writers write with music in mind as they’re creating the story. We were very lucky to have the Miles Davis library to rely on. Steven [Baigelman] and I wrote with a lot of the specific music in the movie in mind and imagined scenes to the soundtrack.

That’s another thing—Miles’s music is very cinematic, and it lends itself very well to soundtrack. We were fortunate enough to be able to get a lot of the pieces we wanted into the film. The fight sequence in the past, where Miles is dragging Frances through the house looking for this imaginary lover, and the fight scene in the present where he’s going to find the tapes to try to get back his music, I wrote all of that in a blur to the Miles in Tokyo “So What,” which we use in the piece. I just regurgitated it out in one sitting, sent it to Steven, and said, “What do you think?” He said, “Yup. Put that in.” Sometimes it comes like that: You’re inspired by a piece of music and you see a sequence happen in your head.

DT: Would you like to direct again?

DC: Not at this budget level. I hope crowdfunding won’t be necessary. I’m glad we were able to do it, and it’s nice to have it in a movie where the main character is about “social music,” but I hope to just be able to have a budget next time that doesn’t require me to call Pras [Michel, associate producer] and Kevin Hart [contributor] and defer all my money and pay for it myself and all the other things we had to do to make it happen. I’ve been offered several things since this to direct, which is great, and I’ll probably take one on…after a long nap.

Click here for the trailer and theatre listings near you. Sony Pictures Classics’ Miles Aheadopens on April 1 in New York City and Los Angeles. The author thanks Russ Posternak of Murphy PR and Donna Daniels of Donna Daniels Public Relations, for arranging this interview. This article is published here courtesy of Director Talk: http://earthwize.org/wordpress/directortalk. Copyright © Director Talk 2016.