“If Miles Davis Was Alive, He’d Be Working with Kendrick Lamar”: An Interview with Don Cheadle

Cheadle’s new Miles Davis film plants its feet somewhere between a thriller, a jazz biopic, and Grand Theft Auto.

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Apr 12 2016, 10:44am

Miles Davis famously said jazz is about the notes you don’t play. Miles Ahead, a new film by Don Cheadle about the jazz legend, honours that philosophy by discarding the cradle-to-grave structure that so often plagues biopics.

“You don’t have to call it a biopic,” Cheadle assures me when we meet. That’s true. If anything, the non-chronological film is an anti-biopic. If you wept like an Oprah guest during Ray and did lame Joaquin Phoenix impressions in the mirror after Walk the Line, then Miles Ahead might actually be a bit too adventurous for you.

Just as Davis was about aggressive experimentation and never staying still, Miles Ahead grooves along at an electrifying tempo, oscillating between genres, time periods and haircuts. Take your pick: it’s an action-crime-thriller-comedy-jazz-fantasy, ostensibly set during Davis’ coked-up hiatus in the late 70s, when he became addicted to painkillers and misplaced his mojo. What awakens him (other than the coke) is a fictionalised heist involving a missing session tape, madcap car chases, and a gunfight with record executives. Think I’m Not There high on Bitches Brew – all set ablaze within Grand Theft Auto.

With sex, drugs and groundbreaking rock n’ roll in ample supply, the script – which is co-written by Cheadle – channels the music’s freewheeling spirit. Alongside flashbacks to a fucked-up marriage with dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), there’s a Bill & Ted imagining of Davis in the 21st century, in which he performs onstage, in a jacket labelled #socialmusic, with a supergroup of former collaborators (including the real Herbie Hancock) and dynamic up-and-comers.

Even with the Davis estate on board, Miles Ahead doesn’t disguise the artist’s ugliness when it comes to the infidelity, substance abuse, and violence against his wife. Not only do you get a raw sense of the guy, from the transcendent highs to the ultra-bleak lows, you get the actual music as a lifeblood pumping through every scene. It's a triumph when you consider Andre 3000’s Jimi Hendrix movie, which failed to gain access to the full catalogue and felt inauthentic as a result.

I turned up an hour early at London’s Corinthia Hotel to interview Don about it all, with three pages of questions (including the line “No sax please, we’re British” in case I could shoehorn it in as a fake improvisation). But in the end, we only found ourselves with seven minutes to chat. So, I asked Cheadle if we could talk about everything so fast we got lockjaw, and he obliged.

Noisey: Hi Don. Let’s speed through this?
Don: Yeah, let’s go.

In his autobiography, Miles described the time period documented in the film as such: “I was four different people; two of them people had consciences and two didn’t. I would look into the mirror and see a whole fucking movie, a horror movie.” Why focus a whole film on this period of non-activity?
Because it’s so fraught – as he describes it right there. It really gave us a jumping-off point to create something that felt like a composition, something that was music-centric. It gave us the ability to use all the different types of music that Miles played, and we could attach our creativity to it – as opposed to checking off a bunch of boxes about what he did in various years. We wanted to create something that was modal, that was now and then, that was this and that, and turn it into something that was a composition.

You mastered trumpet for the role. Was that crucial?
I would never use the m-word! But it was really important for me to learn how to play those solos. I learned them and wrote them out. Because I wanted to not just fake people out. I wanted to be in the experience of where Miles was. More than anything, I wanted to be like him, as opposed to just instructing people about what he did. I wanted to be Miles.

Did you learn from scratch?
Yeah. Once I knew I was going to do this project, I started messing around with it. So for eight years, I’ve been playing as much as I can.

How would you rate yourself on a scale of, say, zero to Miles?
Zero to Miles? Who knows? I’m baby-stepping it still. I’m way down the scale.

Do you think some people, like yourself and Miles, are just naturally gifted at music?
I don’t know. I have a good ear, but it’s definitely something I worked on. I didn’t just pick up the trumpet and know how to do it. And so did Miles. Over many, many years, he had to find his sound and figure out how to express himself through that inert piece of material.

Miles once said that he would spit out rice on his way to school.
Yeah, to work on his embouchure – to get it tight, to get these corners. I didn’t spit out rice myself, but I also really worked on my embouchure.

Photo by Brian Douglas

There’s a scene in the film where Miles, in 1979, hears “So What” on the radio. Did you want to portray that he was haunted by a less experimental past that he pretty much disowned?
I think in our story, he’s dealing with how to find his voice. He’s struggling to tap into whatever it is that’s going to allow him to speak again. But I don’t know if “haunted” is the word for it. He’s haunted in ours, I guess. But I think Miles was always… yeah, maybe because he was haunted, he’s always going forward.

Pharoahe Monch raps over the credits in the film. If Miles was alive, what would he be doing now?
Oh my God, he’d probably be trying to work with Pharoahe. If Miles was alive he would be working with Kendrick Lamar, and Kamasi Washington and Walter Smith III. The guys who really get it and are trying to bring that music forward, while at the same time changing it and turning it into a whole new style. I think Kendrick’s on the cutting edge of music right now. He’s incorporating all kinds of sounds. He’s an incredible storyteller. That’s something Miles would definitely have been into.

Oh man, I’m being told to wrap up. I guess the family were OK with you including all the ugliness of Miles’ life?
Miles included the ugliness.

Did it make him a better musician?
Maybe it inspired him. I think musicians and creative people like that consume everything. [Don looks at all my handwritten questions] You’re not going to fit all those in, so pick your very best one.

The late, great Garry Shandling compared comedy to boxing because it forced him to be in the moment, and in the film we see Miles boxing in his spare time. What’s the link between jazz and boxing?
All the improvisation, being able to listen and follow, all of that stuff is part of boxing. Miles specifically talked about the relationship between his playing and boxing. He would step into certain notes with certain approaches that he thought of as being jabs. Endurance and wind were also important. So he had a lot of analogous ways to describe his music and boxing.

Lastly, what’s an underrated Miles record people should check out?
I don’t know if it’s underrated, but I love Circle in the Round. I really got into it when I was doing this film.

I’ll give it a spin. Thanks Don!

Miles Ahead is out now on DVD.