A musician biopic that’s been stuck in development hell for the better part of a decade, with pre-production for Miles Ahead dating back to Miles Davis’ posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Miles Ahead made its SXSW debut last night. Co-written, directed, and starring Don Cheadle as Davis, taking place almost entirely before he staged his monster comeback in the late 1970s. Cheadle’s performance alone, both in front of and behind the camera, is so tangibly potent that it could singularly change the discussion of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.
While Cheadle has admitted he considers Miles Ahead to be “historical fiction,” both Davis’ music, as well as his lack of a public persona (compared to, say, Ray Charles or Johnny Cash), allowed the actor/filmmaker a considerable amount of freedom to tell his story. I was fortunate enough to speak to Cheadle on the red carpet beforehand about how he filtered one of music’s most iconic figures through his creative vision.
“Miles is a very different kind of artist, and someone who is very enigmatic and constantly reinventing himself, so you couldn’t really pin him down. You couldn’t put his music into a box, or say that there’s a specific genre that he necessarily belonged to. That was the most exciting thing for me was to play someone who’s so expansive and expressive, and I wanted the film to feel like the man.”
In order to accomplish this, Cheadle chooses to narrow his focus down to just a couple of days, when Davis was all but a recluse, calling in radio stations to get cross-wise with DJs when not talking to himself and shuffling about in his own squalor. It was the point in his life that Cheadle and his co-writer, Steven Baigelman found to be the moment of “real intrigue.”
“Really the departure point was the period of time when he wasn’t playing for us, the time that he was silent. That was just a very interesting aspect of his life for me, this incredibly prolific artist who’s changed music four or five times, suddenly goes silent, and what happened during that period of time. What comes out of that? What does he say when he comes out of that?”
The approach of limiting the timeframe, while alluding to other points in his life through flashbacks, allows us an insightful glimpse into the subject’s mind, a point where he was openly hostile to any sort of praise or public attention, instead longing for his lost love, Frances Taylor, played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, whose staggering screen presence is the perfect match for Cheadle.
“You know, Don is just a very giving actor,” she explained, saying that “there’s a freedom he brings to [the film] as well, where he’s not trying to micro-manage or manipulate — he’s a very present actor, and director as well. I know where I had to end up on the page, I know where this scene ends, but he allowed me to just find it. He allowed all of us to just find it for ourselves. There’s a beautiful freedom in that that you don’t find on every set.
She went on to call the experience of watching the film as “a ride, a day in the life of Miles Davis,” one that allows fans, both rabid and casual, to have this experience of being along with him for an adventure. It’s in that adventure that the film’s one glaring flaw emerges: the character of Dave Brill, a Rolling Stone reporter played by Ewan McGregor.
While McGregor himself does fine work, and some of the scenes between the two have a genuine chemistry, the character really, really overstays his welcome. This is the result of our old friend the antiquated, out-of-touch studio system, and as the film was struggling to secure financing, they were required to find a white actor to serve as a kind of co-lead before it would be finished.
Because, for some fucking reason, you can’t have a biopic about a black musician played by a black actor without a white actor there to let white movie audiences live vicariously through him, making Davis his cool black friend.
Speaking to Black Girl Nerds after our interview, Cheadle, who seems to have accepted the absurd reality of his situation, shrugged it off, saying simply that McGregor was an international star who was “ride or die from the beginning,” and just wanted to be a part of the film.
Granted, while McGregor’s character is crucial to some of the film’s best moments, there are others that seem like he was simply shoehorned in at the will of a studio executive’s notes. Nonetheless, Cheadle himself is so completely engaging in his performance that it’s all but impossible to take your eyes off him, which, when combined with his role as a director, has crafted a deeply insightful and wholly original look into one of the world’s all-time greats.
Miles Ahead opens in theaters everywhere on April 1.