Miles Ahead, starring Don Cheadle as the iconic Miles Davis, is about as far from a conventional Hollywood biopic as you can get—which may explain, in part, why it took Cheadle nearly a decade to get his directorial debut off the page and into theaters. The film jumps around between different periods of Davis’ life, namely, his rocky, yet creatively fruitful, relationship with first wife Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) in the 1950s, and his later withdrawal from the music world in the 1970s. That latter period introduces us to a fictional Rolling Stone reporter, played by Ewan McGregor, who hounds Miles to let him interview him for his “comeback” story, only to find himself entangled in a sort of violent, madcap caper to help steal the musician’s unreleased recordings back from a heinous manager (Michael Stuhlbarg).
I spoke with Cheadle and Corinealdi about the tricky process of telling Davis’ story in the edited and condensed interview below.
Don, you’ve described Miles Ahead, accurately, I think, as more of a historical fiction than a biopic. What films or filmmakers inspired you throughout the process of making this film?
Don Cheadle: Films like All that Jazz … [And this is] not that obscure to people around the world, but to Americans it probably is—Toto the Hero [is] something that we watched and talked about as far as the editorial. How there are four different storylines going on in that movie, but everything feels like it’s tumbling forward. Another movie that we talked about a lot is Lenny, in its construction. Run Lola Run. So there are places I tried to steal from everybody, pretty liberally [laughs]. But those kinds of films, that take a non-linear approach to the storytelling but it still feels like they all have a lot of energy and a lot of momentum, forward momentum.
Miles had several wives, right? I think the most famous of them was Cicely Tyson.
Cheadle: Two actual wives, Frances [Taylor] and Cicely, but he had a lot of different partners for a long time.
What made you want to portray Frances specifically, rather than a more public figure like Cicely Tyson, or even one of his other many lovers?
Cheadle: Because his own expression of who she was to him, as kind of “the one that got away,” and the one that he regrets not being able to work it out with, and not being able to be with her. And she also describes their relationship together as being something that was very different than the other women that he had been with in his life, and creatively, which is more important to me for the film—she sort of brought in [the] flamenco [influences]. She brought in a lot of the ideas and the music that he worked with, it was important for him to put her on his album covers at a time when that wasn’t done. And … you know, a deeper dive is the fact that this around 10 years that they were together, was the same sort of arc of time between when Miles was doing “So What” and working with that first sextet. All of the music that he did over that period time … up to that second super group, with Herbie [Hancock], and Wayne [Shorter] and Ron [Carter] and Tony [Williams], when he was taking that same music but pushing it as far as it could possibly go. That creative narrative of that story sort of matched, to me, what Miles was dealing with in the present—what he was trying to get back to. That fire. That sort of journey that would get him back out of his five-year stupor.
Frances Taylor is still alive, yes? Did you get to meet her, and did she influence your work, in terms of creating the character?
Emayatzy Corinealdi: I did! Yeah definitely. Don set that up early on you know, and she and I had a lot of lunches out in L.A. She was very forthcoming with all of her experiences, and stories, because she really is excited about this film being made. Because some people I think have thought, given the nature of the relationship, when things kind of were going south, that she wouldn’t be excited about it or what have you. But she really was. Is! She’s really supportive of that. So our conversations were really wonderful, you know—I was just struck by her energy when I first met her. She’s very vivacious … I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect that, so it was great.
That’s one of the things that struck me about the movie: usually in biopics, when it’s a very well known famous man at the center, the woman character is usually just the wife, or the supportive girlfriend, who’s just … there. And your character at one point says something along the lines of, “I left my career for you, and you’ve never been better…your music has never been better for it.”
Cheadle: “I make your life beautiful.”
Exactly. That struck me as another way you went against the grain and made her character more interesting than she could have been.
Corinealdi: Yeah I mean I think that that was the truth—what she felt, you know, and even to a degree what Miles felt. … That’s what they had that made the relationship so different to the point where she would be bold enough to say that to him … And I think that’s another thing that adds to the role that Don is creating. She is a real part of his life, she’s not just this woman, a woman that he chose to show in the film. There was a purpose there.
You’ve said that having a white character in the film, like Ewan McGregor’s, was sort of a “financial imperative.” [Ed. note: The actor would later clarify this quote in a statement for Mic.] You can look at all of the other musical biopics, whether it’s Ray or What’s Love Got to Do With It?, and those films don’t have a major white character. Do you think part of the reason you added that supporting character is that Miles Davis seems like a more difficult musician to pull of onscreen?
Cheadle: Not even just a musician to pull off—the nature of the music he’s dealing with. For a lot of people, jazz is some niche thing that’s over there, or something you view as background music. It’s not well understood or celebrated really in our country; [it is] much more across the world. And yeah, it’s looked at as something that is a risk as far as something to center a movie around. And really to be fair, I could have probably cast a big Japanese character if I was going to get financing from Japan, or a big Mexican actor if I was going to go to Mexico, if there was a way to tell this story in one of those demographics where they could sell it to their audience—where it would have made sense to do it that way as well.
But the character Dave Braden was always in the construction [of the script] from eight years ago. And it wasn’t until we put the right person in that scene—because casting is also another component of how you get to the magic number in addition to the crowd funding that I had to do, and me putting in my own money, and Kevin Hart putting in money, and Pras [Michel] putting in money and shooting in Cincinnati where there was a rebate. And all of these things conspire to get us to where we get a “yes.” And Ewan, once he signed on, things started rolling.
Were there any ways in which you tried to internally “justify” having a white character in the film?
Cheadle: I feel like we got to use Ewan McGregor. I think it was additive, I think it raised the level of the film, you know. And Miles—though he definitely had a relationship with race that was often difficult and challenging and was definitely on the receiving end of a lot of that racial sort of bias and prejudice—his closest creative collaborative partner was Gil Evans, you know? That was the person that he feels got him the most, basically. He’s like, “I don’t care who the cat is, I’m hiring the people that sound the best.” I’m putting the best musicians in my band, I don’t care what they are. And I believe that having Ewan was additive and actually made it expansive, and it’s great …
It’s not Driving Miss Daisy you know! It’s kind of—you’re driving [laughs]. And it’s part and parcel of how Miles dealt with reporters and people at that time, there were a lot of people knocking at the door trying to get that story. They didn’t know if they were going to get an obituary, the didn’t know if it was going to be a comeback story, but [McGregor’s character] is sort of an amalgam of a lot of people from that era.
We always knew we needed a character that would sort of burst into Miles’s life and get him out of hiding and crash him into this story. So that character always existed from when we created that story. But we did have to get a piece of casting that made it work internationally so we were able to sell it to different territories. Now I also know people, that when they go around and sell these movies that that is a story—I don’t know how you can prove it quantifiably, that you need [a major white character] in order to make the movie go, but I know that’s the story.
There are a lot of scenes with you two in which there is no, at least audible, dialogue that the audience can hear—it’s sort of in a montage set to music.
Cheadle: I was just telling this story today. I don’t know if you’d ever heard before today [Corinealdi: I didn’t.] that the scene where Miles and Francis actually fight, throw down, have a physical altercation … the way that kind of happened, where the dialogue went away. I mean there’s dialogue all throughout that while we’re still doing the scene, but when we were watching it in editorial, my editor John Axelrad just didn’t raise the volume at one point, and it was an accident, it was kind of a happy accident. He reached for the knob, and I was like “No, no don’t touch it! Don’t touch it!” And we just watched the scene, with the music playing and the juxtaposition of that song, called “Nefertiti,” and this is what’s happening in the scene. Just the sort of repurposing of that music in that way, there’s just something about that juxtaposition that was really arresting and kind of startling and kind of made it really emotional for me… I was like “We’re gonna leave that.” He was like, “You sure you don’t want me to play it in a little bit?” I was like, “No” because it felt to me like the equivalent of ‘Mommy and Daddy are fighting,’ and it’s like “I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna hear it.” That was just kind of a happy accident.
You’ve said you feared you would regret not taking this on when looking back in your old age. I know this has been such a trial for you to get off the ground to begin with; it’s been eight years. How do you feel now that it’s done?
Cheadle: A great sense of relief, and accomplishment. And a fair amount of joy. I’m glad that the family is happy, I believe that we set out to do something and that we did it. That doesn’t always happen. You know you have the idea about what it is you want to do, and you see the film and you’re like “That’s not what we were meant to do, or that’s not what I thought we were doing.” My cameraman said it, he goes, “This is it. I saw the movie that I thought we were shooting. … And that doesn’t really happen a lot.”