Q&A: Actor/Director Don Cheadle On His Miles Davis Biopic ‘Miles Ahead’ – ‘It Became A Monkey On My Back’

Don Cheadle really went all-in for his Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead. As well as directing and co-writing the film, which is primarily set during the legendary musician’s coke-addled and reclusive late ’70s creative rut, Cheadle learned to play the trumpet in his Avengers trailer so he could portray the jazz pioneer realistically. Here he tells NME why the Miles Davis story sucked him in.

What made you make this movie?
“It was attrition. This was something I tried to give away as a director several years ago, but I wasn’t able to attract someone to take it over. The people I did attract said, ‘This is yours, you’ve created this vision, you’ve got to direct it.’ I looked at the road ahead and thought, ‘Nah, this is a bitch, I should probably offload some of this responsibility’. But that didn’t come to pass.”

How many years have you been working on it?
“From the beginning to now? Ten years.”

So it’s become a real passion project.
“Or a depression project. It became a ‘monkey on my back’ project. At some point earlier than this, if it had gone away I would have been relieved. But then I started picturing myself sitting in a chair looking back on my career and thinking, ‘Man, if only I’d tried…'”

What is it about Miles Davis that’s so compelling?
“That he changed music three or four times. He never rested on his laurels, he was always searching for another sound at a time when he could have made a living playing the music people were comfortable with him playing. But he wasn’t comfortable with that. He had to push himself to new, unknown places and take a lot of chances”

In the film, he says he doesn’t want his music branded “jazz”. He calls it “social music”.
“Yes, that’s speaking to the idea that Miles is like, ‘I’m bigger than your definition of me.’ But if you look at Miles’ discography, it’s funk, hip-hop, blues, R&B, soul, everything is in there. Right before he died, he was recording music with Prince.”

How would you describe the film’s structure? It’s not a traditional linear biopic.
“No, it feels to me like a composition. It’s modal, if we’re going to talk about it in terms of music, with the A-story and the B-story being the major and the minor.”

Why did you decide to set the A-story – as you call it – in the late ’70s?
“Because it was a fraught period for him. There was a lot of sound and fury before that, but then there was this pause in his creativity. That pause made me lean in and almost try to play what’s not there – find the space between the notes. The opportunity to create a narrative of Miles’ return to music was sitting there in the potential of that time when he wasn’t doing anything.”

Several members of Miles Davis’s family were executive producers. How involved were they?
“They were very much involved. Vincent, his nephew who toured with him some, was instrumental in getting me materials and stories and connecting me with people. I mean, he took me over to Herbie Hancock’s house. Frances [Davis, Miles’s first wife] was there every step of the way too. It was great having them in the sidecar with me, and at times driving the car.”

Not everything in the film is super-flattering. Were there any tensions between you and Davis’s family?
“It wasn’t difficult at all. There were slight tensions, but if you read Miles’s autobiography, he’s not hiding anything. Had we attempted to sanitise anything, you’d be sitting there now asking, ‘Why didn’t you talk about this? Why did you avoid that?’ It’s like, which poison do you want? The truthful one, or the one where it looks like we’re trying to do a version of his story that makes everyone go, ‘Oh, isn’t that just great.’ That would have been soft.”

Win: A Rega turntable and Miles David vinyl to celebrate the release of ‘Miles Ahead’ Click here to enter the competition

Miles Ahead opens in UK cinemas on April 22.