Could it be that Hollywood has heard our plea to stop making so many biopics? Probably not, though Don Cheadle seems to have. The actor’s directorial debut, Miles Ahead, which he also co-wrote and stars in as Miles Davis and which closed out the New York Film Festival last weekend, is such an improvisational riff on the genre that it’s more like an anti-biopic.
Ostensibly about Davis’s cocaine-addicted cave years of living as a hermit in an Upper West Side mansion in the late ‘70s, it’s also a fictional buddy caper, in which a gun-toting Davis heads out into the night to track down some asshole record producers who’ve stolen tapes of his new music while accompanied by a shady white guy posing as a Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor), and flashing back to happier times with his first wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Cheadle goes full Davis, in billowing silk shirts and crazy curly hair, with attitude to spare, for a performance that is likely to be on a short list for Oscar nominations next year. What’s real? What’s not? Even Davis scholars might not come away knowing, and that’s Cheadle’s point.
Cheadle isn’t the first person to upend the biopic genre — Todd Haynes’s impressionistic Bob Dylan movie, I’m Not Here, and Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs, which debuted as this year’s NYFF centerpiece film, are likewise worthy rebels. Miles Ahead, though, is the only one that basically turns its famous subject into the star of Lethal Weapon (with Miles Davis as Mel Gibson). “I had no interest in making a biopic,” Cheadle told us at the premiere. And you can thank Jake Kasdan and Judd Apatow for that disinterest. After watching their 2007 spoof on biopics Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, starring John C. Reilly as a fictional country musician, Cheadle and his co-writer Steven Baigelman vowed they would never allow themselves to be part of that joke. “It’s just terrifying because you’re like, ‘That’s every trope, that’s everything that’s ever used in a biopic,’” said Cheadle.
Variety called the resulting trope-averse biopic “wild, and wildly uneven,” while other critics have pointed out difficult-to-justify omissions in Davis’s life story, like all of his childhood, any reference to his contemporaries, and the assertion that Frances Taylor was his one true love without any reference to his last wife, Cicely Tyson, who helped him beat his coke addiction. Cheadle isn’t bothered, though.
“I care personally about when Miles met John Coltrane,” he said at the premiere, “but I don’t need to make that be a part of the film unless somehow that factors into the forward thrust of the movie we’re trying to make. It’s not to me about hitting signposts along the way, and Miles was never about that. I felt like for this particular artist it would really be a violation to try to do something standard and something kind of cookie-cutter.” Davis’s notoriously protective estate was surprisingly onboard (which makes the Cicely Tyson omission particularly interesting). “And thank God his family was of the same mind,” said Cheadle, “because it would have been impossible had they wanted some very paint-by-the-numbers story told. But when I said, ‘Do you think your uncle, do you think your father would have wanted a movie like that? Or do you think that he’d want a movie that he would star in?’ Because for me it was always Don Cheadle is Miles Davis as Miles Davis in Miles Ahead. That’s how I thought about the movie.”
Cheadle isn’t opposed to biopics; he got an Oscar nomination for one, Hotel Rwanda. “But I’ve also sat next to people that I’m portraying in the movies and asked them, ‘Is this scene like it really happened?’” he said. “And they’re like, ‘Come on. No, of course it isn’t.’ You know that. There is a big sort of a wink, anyway, when you say that this is based on a fact. Just call it historical fiction.” Cheadle pointed out how the preamble of Gandhi even talks about how it’s impossible to encapsulate a human being’s life in two hours. “I’m trying to give you an essence of the person,” he said. “I just want[ed] to have Miles out of his own mouth say, ‘I’m going to tell you a story. Now, you can go along for the ride, or don’t go along for the ride.’ This is a story. This is a piece of music. We always want it to feel like a composition, and not some sort of a thing that a book can do better or a documentary can do better.” (If you want a documentary, Cheadle recommends Ken Burns’s PBS series, Jazz, and 2001’s The Miles Davis Story.)
After watching the movie, though, we had so many more questions. Indeed, was any of it true? Was there ever such a thing as a stolen tape that Davis had to hunt down? Was he involved in a shooting at a boxing match? We were surrounded by jazz musicians at the Hennessy-sponsored after-party, not to mention the deputy director of the Jazz Foundation of America, and even they were lost about what was real and made up.
So we went to the source. “You should do the research,” Cheadle said. “There were wall-to-wall facts in that movie. They’re all moved around, jumbled around, but it’s truthful front to back. It’s like we took a puzzle that was put together and threw it up in the air and put it back together the way I wanted to put it together, which is meta-Miles.”
The one thing that is definitely true, though, is that Cheadle knows how to play the trumpet. He started playing four years ago and actually played all of the solos in the movie, which are then dubbed over with Davis’s actual music. “We weren’t going to play my sound, but I learned how,” said Cheadle. “I didn’t want to just get up there and mash it out. I wanted to really understand what was happening with the breath and the embouchure and the technique and all that.” He was sick of watching movies that are supposed to be about the best musicians in the world where the actor’s fingers don’t match up with the notes being played. “I thought that would be a huge affront to the whole spirit of the project to not really go through that process,” he said, “so I made sure I did.”
And when it comes time to promote the movie next spring, he may even take his trumpet on the road. When we told Cheadle that his distributor, Tom Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics, had told us he was going on tour, Cheadle laughed. “Easy, Tom. First you have to define what on tour means.” The idea would be to gig at small clubs with the stellar band in the movie, which includes Herbie Hancock. “If we’re gonna go on tour, it’ll have to be stepped up quite a bit. I might have to go back in a lab. But we’ll see,” said Cheadle, smiling in a way that made the tour seem like an inevitability. “It could be fun.”