For nearly three decades, Don Cheadle has excelled as a versatile and compelling screen presence, disappearing into roles as varied as hair-trigger psycho Mouse in Devil in a Blue Dress (1992), sad-sack cowboy-cum-pornstar Buck Swope in Boogie Nights (1997), and real-life hero Paul Rusesabagina in the harrowing drama Hotel Rwanda (2004).
Cheadle again commands the screen in his directorial debut, Miles Ahead, in which he plays the late jazz legend Miles Davis during his hermetic, drug-fueled "quiet period" at the tail end of the turbulent 1970s. Replete with permanent scowl, crispy jheri-curl, and a closetful of baroquely colorful threads, Cheadle's Davis is the kind of guy who uses "motherfucker" as punctuation.
Playing fast and loose with the documented truth, the caper-ish plot follows the attempts of Davis and the wheedling—and, by the way, completely fictional— Rolling Stone journalist Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) to recover a tape of his work that's being guarded by his record company. The story's emotional weight is provided by Davis's recurring memories of his great lost love Frances Taylor (a somewhat under-utilized Emayatzy Corinealdi), who appears in 1960s flashback scenes alongside a considerably more clean-cut Cheadle-as-Davis.
Though it zips by at a rapid pace, Miles Ahead is not always dramatically successful: The tone skews overly zany, its narrative at times resembling an extended version of the Boogie Nights scene in which a coked-up Dirk Diggler and Chest Rockwell attempt to retrieve their "magic" tapes from a record producer.
But despite its flaws, Miles Ahead is an energetic work boasting a fine central performance, and it's a refreshing departure from the linear, moribund template that often dooms biopics to mediocrity. The film was ten years in the making, partially funded through a successful IndieGogo campaign (Cheadle raised a remarkable $344,582), and is clearly a labor of love for its director-star.
I recently caught up over the phone with Cheadle to discuss his love for Davis, the origins of his film, and the revelation that casting McGregor, a well-known white actor, was a "financial imperative."
VICE: The late, great British theorist Stuart Hall once said, "When I was nineteen, Miles Davis put his finger on my soul, and it never went away." Could you talk about what he meant to you, and how you came to the idea of making a film about him?
Don Cheadle: It was music that was played in my home that I was hearing before I realized what it was. I came to Miles through Cannonball Adderley, because I played alto sax when I was young. I was way into Cannonball. My parents had his records, so I noticed he played with Miles Davis, and I was like, Who's that? That opened the door to his music for me. I was ten, eleven years old. That quote you said—"He put his finger on my soul"—it never stopped.
We flash-forward many years later to Vince Wilburn, Miles's nephew, at Miles's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, announcing that they were going to do a movie about his life, and that I'm going to play him. They pitched me some ideas about how they wanted to tell the story, and they were fine, but I wanted to do something that felt more impressionistic, wild, unpredictable, and out-there, given my experience with Miles's music and all the places he took it. To their credit, they said, "We think Miles would prefer that, rather than something that checks all the boxes of his life."
You mentioned that you played sax as a kid. Did you do a lot of trumpet playing for Miles Ahead ?
When I knew this was something that I wanted to put together, I picked up the trumpet and started playing, started to learn how to do that. It's a big pet peeve of mine in movies when I see people playing musicians, and they clearly don't have any acumen with their instrument. I did not want to go into this movie not having an understanding of the instrument.
Also, I wanted to do what Miles did. I wanted to be in his shoes, and be as close to him as I could. It was important to me to learn how to play, and be on some sort of the timeline that he was on. I probably only got as good as he was when he was eleven or twelve years old, but I'm still playing solos in the movie. I wrote all that music down and learned all of that stuff.
And also, twelve-year-old Miles Davis is still Miles Davis, right?
Exactly! And at some point, he was as bad as I am now [laughs]. I just wanted to be somewhere on that continuum. I still play every day, pretty much.
You discussed at the Berlin Film Festival how hiring a white co-star was a "financial imperative"—a part of getting the film made. Was there a difference between intellectually knowing that that was maybe on the horizon, and actually going through it?
It was a bit of both. I've been in this business for thirty years, and producing movies for the last few. I understand what it takes to get a movie going, why some movies don't happen. Casting is a huge part of it, especially when you are trying to ensure a foreign component with your domestic piece. If we'd set the movie in Japan, I could have hired a Japanese actor, and tried to raise the money in Japan. I could have hired a French actor if we were going to base the movie in France.
You could have done it like Shaft, when they had Shaft in Africa. You could do sequels and have Miles Davis around the world.
If you're going to get money from those different places, it depends on how you're trying to put the movie together. Having Ewan McGregor sign on, things started to happen [financially]. By the way, having him was completely additive and expansive, and I'm pleased that he came on board and wanted to do it.
"I probably only got as good as Miles was when he was eleven or twelve years old, but I'm still playing solos in the movie, I wrote all that music down, and learned all of that stuff. It was important for me to do that."
As a filmmaker, do you relate to what happens to Miles in the movie—he wants to take his time and let the creativity flow, but thanks to market forces, and his record company, that becomes almost impossible.
There's always these questions about what is yours versus someone else's, what is the ownership, what's the value you get from the thing that you produce, and how do you balance your livelihood with your artistic creation. It's not something that you can just turn on and off, and have it on tap. Especially when you're someone like Miles Davis, who isn't trying to do the same kinds of things he did before to make sure that it works. It's very risky to have a built-in audience and have people who are supporting and championing you, and say, "Thanks a lot guys, I'm going this way now. If you wanna come, that's cool, but I've got to follow my path." It's very rare that artists do that. Most find a sweet spot and sit in it, and suck it dry and it's done. You don't move unless you have to. He moved because he had to, internally.
In the film industry, there are a select few, including Paul Thomas Anderson, who seem to have the freedom to make strange, avant-garde films with big budgets (like The Master and Inherent Vice). It's not frequent, is it?
No. Usually, you have to perform. There has to be a bottom line that's matched, and people have to believe that you're a good risk before they'll allow you to do something really creative and innovative. Or they have to think that it's Oscar-bait, and then they'll take a shot.
"I remember sitting with people from the studio when Hotel Rwanda was going to come out. We were at the SAG awards, and one of the executives said, "Well, if this doesn't get any Oscar notices, we're not going to spend any more money on the marketing." I was like, "I can hear you!"
You mentioned Oscar-bait a moment ago. A couple months back you tweeted a joke at Oscar host-to-be Chris Rock: "Yo, Chris. Come check me out at #TheOscars this year. They got me parking cars on G level." I worry that "diversity" is becoming just another buzzword. What you do think are the lessons that the industry might learn, and how the industry might look, after the latest eruption of controversy on that subject?
I like how you said "latest," because it's cyclical, right? We'll see if these things that the Academy has tried to do to address it will have any sort of effect. I still think it's mostly about what's happening inside the halls where people are deciding whether or not they are going to green-light something. That's way before somebody is onstage handing somebody a statue.
There obviously is a financial component to that as well. I remember sitting with people from the studio when Hotel Rwanda was going to come out. We were at the SAG awards, and one of the executives said, "Well, if this doesn't get any Oscar notices, we're not going to spend any more money on the marketing." I was like, "I can hear you!" That was the first time I understood how it isn't some vanity thing, and look at me, clap for me onstage: These accolades are a lifeblood for the film.
I don't know if, as you said, "diversity" is going to mean anything more once the heat dies down, and there's something else that comes up that we want to focus on. But it's tricky. It's hard to get any kind of movie made, at any time, ever.
You've worked with many great directors. Did any of that prepare you for taking on the job yourself?
All of it goes into the hopper in some way, and you try to steal the best parts from all of them. But something all the really good filmmakers have in common is that they understand it's a collaborative enterprise; they are permeable, and they've hired you not just to be a piece of living furniture, but because they believe in your talent. They are still the final arbiter, obviously, but you're not just there to take orders and hit your marks. Especially with me directing, and being in it, and wearing lots of different hats, I wanted to empower the team around me to feel like they could be a part of the process, be a third eye for me sometimes, like, "You think I need another take?" People don't believe that you mean it, but once they do, everyone just felt more a part of it.
Lastly, I've noticed you're quite vocal about politics on Twitter, so I have to ask: Are you feeling sad about the end of Obama's tenure, particularly in the light of the remarkable rise to prominence of Donald Trump?
Yeah. [Trump's rise] is nerve-wracking, it really is. Especially today [ Cheadle and I were speaking in the hours following the terror attack on Brussels ]. You see the fear-mongering. It's really scary to me that people are drafting off of that. I never believed that the thing that's pushing that [mentality] went away. It just went underground. In ways, I'm kind of thankful for [Trump] so that we can identify where that mindset is, and that people are flying that flag very clearly and proudly. I want to know where you guys are. I don't want that in the dark. I want that out in the open. And maybe the bright light on some of that, like cancer, can start killing it. I'm just scared because it doesn't take that many crazies to have a demonstrative effect on things we can see every day.
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