Don Cheadle's "Miles Ahead"

Solomon J. LeFlore By

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Miles Ahead, in which the Academy Award winning actor portrays the legendary trumpeter, marks the directorial debut of Don Cheadle, who co-wrote the script.

The independently financed production was shot in Cincinnati. Co-starring with Don Cheadle are Ewan McGregor, Michael Stuhlbarg and Emayatzy Corinealdi. The production capped a nine year journey to the big screen that started with Davis' posthumous induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

Rather than encapsulating the entirety of Miles Davis' life, Miles Ahead (previously known as Kill The Trumpet Player) will focus on the five-year span where Davis stopped making music—known as his "silent period"—and his troubled marriage to Frances Taylor Davis. All of this eventually led up to the creation of Davis' 1969 jazz-rock album In a Silent Way which is regarded by music writers as Davis' first fusion recording.

The picture is among a number of recent film endeavors centering on iconic black musicians—all of them revolutionary figures who were considered ahead of their time. One of the most interesting is the Quincy Jones produced Keep On Keepin' On (the Clark Terry story); and, the most successful film thus far, Straight Outta Compton (a biopic about Dr. Dre and the iconic group N.W.A.) connecting best with a wide audience thus far.

During the past 10 years there have been at least five Miles Davis projects in development that included: the George Tillman project (tentatively called Miles); and, the Quincy Troupe project called Miles and Me, that I was presented in October 2011 for project finance purposes. Sadly, because of adverse logistics, it was one of the projects that got away... Miles Davis is an amazing story.

The Quincy Troupe project (which was supported by the French distributor Wild Bunch) was a candid account of Troupe's friendship with Miles Davis that revealed a portrait of a great musician and an intimate study of a unique relationship. As Davis' collaborator on Miles: The Autobiography, Troupe had exceptional access to Miles.

The script went beyond the life portrayed in the autobiography to describe in detail the process of Davis' spectacular creativity and the joys and difficulties his passionate, contradictory temperament posed to their friendship. It showed how Miles Davis, both as a black man and an artist, influenced not only Quincy Troupe but whole generations.

Troupe wrote that Miles Davis was "irascible, contemptuous, brutally honest, ill-tempered when things didn't go his way, complex, fair-minded, humble, kind and a son-of-a-bitch." That script captured and conveyed the power of the musician's presence, the mesmerizing force of his personality, and the restless energy that lay at the root of his creativity. I look forward to the October release of Miles Ahead. And there will no doubt be legions of naysayers who will object to the way the Davis story is told, given the kind of passionate following such artists cultivate.

Miles Davis is a jazz giant, perhaps one of the most important musicians and cultural figures of the 20th Century. I would compare his to Mozart and Beethoven of the classical and romantic eras. Consequently, reducing someone's life like Miles' into a two-hour film, is a huge challenge.

Don Cheadle, who earned an Oscar nod for his portrayal of a noble hero in Hotel Rwanda, arouses and torments in House of Lies, and kicked some serious bad guy ass in Iron Man 3, has now played one of the coolest American musicians ever in Miles Ahead.

Note: Cheadle was approached to give a direct interview for this article; however, regrettably his production schedule and the movie's 10 October release date precluded an interview before the movie's release. However, we were able to source other online quotes from Don about the production of Miles Ahead to supplement and inform this article.

According to Entertainment Weekly, Cheadle pitched Miles Ahead like this: "It's not a biopic, per se. It's a gangster pic. It's a movie that Miles Davis would have wanted to star in. Without throwing history away, we're trying to shuffle it and make it more cubist. The bulk of it takes place in '79, in a period where he actually wasn't playing. But we traverse a lot of his life, but it's not a cradle to grave story."


For those who do not know, Miles Dewey Davis III (May 26, 1926-September 28, 1991) was an American jazz musician, trumpeter, bandleader and composer. Widely considered one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, Miles Davis was, together with his musical groups, at the forefront of several major developments in jazz music, including bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, and jazz fusion.

In 2006, Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which recognized him as "one of the key figures in the history of jazz."

In 2008, his 1959 album Kind of Blue received its fourth platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), for shipments of at least four million copies in the United States. It is the best selling jazz album of all time.

On December 15, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a symbolic resolution recognizing and commemorating the album Kind of Blue on its 50th anniversary, "honoring the masterpiece and reaffirming jazz as a national treasure."

Davis' career spanned over a half century, and the highlights are many, from his pioneering Birth of the Cool sessions starting in 1949, to his first quintet with John Coltrane in the '50s, his orchestral collaborations with Gil Evans later in the decade, the second great quintet with Herbie Hancock in the '60s, and his electro-funk "Prince of Darkness" phase.

The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll noted "Miles Davis played a crucial and inevitably controversial role in every major development in jazz since the mid-'40s, and no other jazz musician has had so profound an effect on rock. Miles Davis was the most widely recognized jazz musician of his era, an outspoken social critic and an arbiter of style—in attitude and fashion—as well as music."

Cheadle's take on Davis, co-written with Steven Baigelman, leans toward the more conceptual, juxtaposing two periods in the trumpeter's life. "The central story takes place in two days, before he made his comeback (in 1980)," Cheadle says.

The "B story," reflects back to 1956-66, which parallels Davis' relationship with his first wife, dancer Frances Taylor Davis. "She's sort of the one that got away," Cheadle explains, "the love of his life." Zoe Saldana was originally identified to play Frances, but the role ultimately went to Emayatzy Corinealdi (from the Sundance hit The Middle of Nowhere).

Sets and locations in Cincinnati double for Davis' New York Brownstone, the office of Columbia Records executive George Butler, and for performance spaces in the flashback sequences that could make up as much as 40% of the film.
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