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How Don Cheadle channeled Miles Davis




US actor Don Cheadle poses as he visits, on December 11, 2009 at the the Cité de la Musique in Paris, the
US actor Don Cheadle poses as he visits, on December 11, 2009 at the the Cité de la Musique in Paris, the "We Want Miles" exhibition spanning American legendary trumpeter Miles Davis.
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images

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When it came to producing a movie about Miles Davis, Don Cheadle knew that it was less about putting a biography of the man on the silver screen and more about capturing the music legend's essence. He also knew that to get it right, there was only one man for the job: himself.

Cheadle produced, directed, co-wrote and starred in “Miles Ahead,” which hits theaters Friday.

Miles Ahead Trailer

The film captures the span of just a few days in Davis’s life, a dark time of addiction and isolation in New York City, before the iconic jazz musician made a public comeback. Cheadle spoke with AirTalk about the project. 

Interview Highlights

You’ve worked for some terrific directors in your 40 feature films and television work you’ve done. How was your boss for this one?

I had to wrestle him to the ground a couple times, and really try to get his attention. But ultimately the holistic approach was, I guess, the way to go to really protect the vision.

When Miles was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, his nephew was asked a question about it, and talked about you as though you’d signed on to play his uncle in a film. How did it get from there to you taking on this project, and you’re making it happen?

Well I met with the family, the estate… They pitched me some ideas, which I thought were fine, but I felt like they weren’t challenging enough, not for me personally. But just with the material and the subject matter, I thought needed to be crazier and more innovative and feel like we were experiencing creativity as opposed to checking off the boxes of the highlights and the lowlights of Miles Davis’ life. And I said, I want to tell kind of a concentrated story, kind of in a couple of days, not cradle the grave, you know that has a lot of energy and feels like a heist movie. You know I said, ‘I want to make a movie that Miles Davis would want to star in,” as opposed to feeling like we were getting the Cliff’s Notes of his life.

How do you capture that degree of talent on the one hand, that’s wrapped in such a difficult, frail and hostile package at the same time?

I think with not freighting myself with the responsibility of attempting to do everything that you just mentioned, because when I looked at what that would look like, I couldn’t even imagine how you would begin to approximate that journey… But I wanted it to be like a Miles Davis experience. I wanted it to feel like we were walking around inside of his creative brain, and generating all of this momentum to where he, in kind of a centrifugal way, throws himself out of this period of quiet and figures out what to say again.

Having studied the man so much, how do you think he was able time and time again to just push on the envelope to have the popular culture follow behind him?

I think there was a big part of him that didn’t care if they followed or not. I know that he wanted to play in bigger stadiums with bigger audiences and that he wanted to have his music reach as many people as possible, but he wasn’t overly concerned with the allegiances that his fans had or whatever particular music they connected to. I think he was incredibly restless artistically, and was always striving for the next sound that he heard in his head, and was putting these different groups together to try to figure out how to produce that sound and produce that music.

Guest:

Don Cheadle, actor, director, and producer of the new film, "Miles Ahead," about the life of Jazz great, Miles Davis. The film opens in Los Angeles and New York this Friday, April 1