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What Does Genius Look Like?

Don Cheadle stars as Miles Davis in the film <em>Miles Ahead</em>, which he also wrote, produced and directed.
Sony Pictures Classics
Don Cheadle stars as Miles Davis in the film Miles Ahead, which he also wrote, produced and directed.

Miles Davis never had just one sound. Though his body of work remains singular and unmistakable, he changed gears time after time in a 50-year career. A few times — half a dozen, by his own estimation — he managed to take the entire music world with him. But just like the music, the man himself contained multitudes. Davis was brash. He was abusive. He could be downright mean.

Somehow, actor Don Cheadle manages to capture all of this in a new film called Miles Ahead, which he also wrote, produced and directed. Cheadle says the last thing he wanted to do was make yet another biopic that tries to cover its subject's entire story but only skims the peaks. Instead, he says, he aimed for a valley — a period in Davis' life when he was struggling to reconnect with his muse — and used it as a prism for the artist's unique relationship with craft.

Cheadle spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about sneaking in trumpet practice between takes of the Avengers films, leaving parts of his script deliberately underwritten, and why the diversity conversation in Hollywood often boils down, in one way or another, to money. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read much more of their conversation below.

Michel Martin: The first point we have to make is that Miles Ahead is not a biopic, not in the conventional sense. How would you describe it for those who haven't seen it yet?

Don Cheadle: I mean, for me, I wanted to make something that felt impressionistic, and really mercurial, and could go anyplace. And was kind of gangster, and felt like the experiences that I have when I hear people tell stories about Miles Davis, and listen to his music — you know, how incredibly innovative and unexpected he could be. And I thought, if we're going to do a movie about his life, rather than do something that attempts to sort of check all the boxes — and gives short shrift to every one — focus on a time that would give us the opportunity to explore all facets of his music, and really tell a story that felt creative.

It's kind of like an emotional biography, in a way. It's a biography of interior life, but not necessarily of historical facts.

Absolutely, although there are tons of facts in it. We wanted to come up with a way — my writing partner Steven Baigelman and I — where we would externalize an internal process.

The frame of the film is this five-year period when Miles Davis famously released, well, nothing. He kind of lost his muse during those years. Partly it was some health issues, some drug issues. And part of the problem was recovering from a nasty breakup with his wife, Frances Taylor. Why that period in particular?

Because it's very intriguing to me, when you're looking at the life of a man who was so prolific, had such an impact on music had such an impactful voice in his métier. Just to go silent? What happens during that period of time? How do you get out of it? What's going on while you're in it? What do you say when you're finished with it? It gave us the opportunity to have the sort of "unreliable storyteller" be Miles Davis himself, take the wheel and tell this reporter, "I'm going to tell that story."

As a character, Frances Taylor plays a very big role in this film. Tell me about that.

Well, Frances is the one that Miles always talks about — the one that got away, he one that he regretted not being able to work that marriage out with the most. And she herself described their relationship in a similar way. They just couldn't be together.

They were able to be friends after this really tumultuous period of time, which is incredibly interesting. The span of time that they were together sort of goes from when Miles was first working on that seminal album So What, and taking those songs over the next 10 years — when he was with the second supergroup with Tony and Wayne and Herbie and Ron, playing those tunes three times as fast and going everywhere with the solos, making it the most elastic it could be. And then it was over: He never really played that music again. He kind of moved away from playing acoustically, and it was an era that had come to a close. And that spans the same amount of time that we depict their relationship, when this music had its most expressive and expansive period, so it felt like there was some congruency, having the stories work in those ways against each other.

There's a moment in the film that captures some of what you're talking about here. Miles is sitting at a piano, talking with a journalist played by Ewan McGregor about how Frances influenced him, and quietly playing at the same time. How did you settle on that as a device? It was one of the first times I really felt like I could understand what he was doing — his genius for orchestration.

And that's what we wanted to do, without going through it in a didactic way or a CliffsNotes way: explaining what was the makeup of this man, what his influences were and how he worked. It's very tricky to show "genius." What does that look like? It's an internal process. It's something that, unless you understand what you're watching, is not communicative. So, we kind of wanted to make sure that the philosophy was in there.

You know, Miles went to Juilliard for a year and then left, because it really wasn't what he was attempting to do. But it's funny: he got an A in piano, and I think and he got a C in trumpet. He was always someone who really understood form, and you hear it when he moves away from bebop and hard bop and starts working with Gil Evans and the Nonet, and these different instruments that are not classically thought of as jazz instruments, and ways of composition that were borrowing heavily from European composers at the time, trying to deconstruct different kinds of classical approaches to music. He was very steeped in the music and always trying to find a new approach to it.

There are a lot of flashbacks in the film, and at one point, we're taken back to one of his recording sessions with Gil Evans. We see him coaching the session musicians, and he's encouraging them to be "wrong, strong." What does that mean?

Well in that particular recording, "Gone," there's this nine-note section that they keep playing over again. They play it in different percussive ways, with slightly different rests in between, and on the recording itself they never get it right — they never are all playing together at the same time. But it's like, if you're going to make a mistake — which Miles didn't really believe there were — you know, commit. Go hard. We're trying to create something. It's fine if it doesn't all "work." What's important is that there's an energy where you're going for it.

Herbie said that Miles would tell the musicians all the time, "I'm paying you to practice in front of people." You know, journey is destination — it may be cliché to say, but he was really somebody who believed that. If he heard you playing a solo in your hotel room, and then you came down onstage that night and presented that solo that you had worked out upstairs, you were fired — you were out of the band. Because he wanted you to always be reaching for something, whether it came together or not. You listen to an album like Bitches Brew, and that album sounds like it's falling apart at the same it's coming together. He's just letting you hear the process, as opposed to try to hide everything and try to gloss over that stuff. Miles was like, "No, this is the stuff. This is what it looks like."

What was your process like with these other musicians that were part of his life? Did you interview them? How did you capture the kind of relationship he had with people like Herbie Hancock?

Well, we don't use any of them by name. When we talk about these flashbacks, or these impressions that are happening in Miles' mind, it's really framed by the interview. He puts the horn to his mouth when Dave says, "How would you put it?", and he plays his answer.

I wanted to hire musicians in the movie, rather than hire actors to play like they could play. I wanted to be the only one who had to really task myself with that responsibility. Everyone else, like in that that "Gone" session, those are all real musicians. I said, "I want to get the charts. I want us to sit in the sectionals as we would. And I want to just work through this piece." In the script, the only line that is in the script for that scene is, "Miles works out 'Gone.'" That whole scene is just improv.

You've played saxophone for years and years, as I recall. Did you learn to play the trumpet for this role?

I learned to play, but obviously when we're playing and we're using Miles' sound, it's Miles. It's not going to be Don Cheadle trying to sound like Miles Davis. And in other scenes, Keyon Harrold, a fantastic trumpet player who is gigging a lot now has his own album coming out — he played the parts for Miles Davis, and also for the other character in the movie, Junior. But I am under there. I am actually playing the solos.

How nerve-wracking was it to get comfortable playing? Or are you just gangster like that?

No, no — I'm neurotic like that. It's kind of a pet peeve of mine, when I see actors in movies who are supposed to be playing musicians and don't really have any understanding of their acts. I want, personally, to not be that dude; I really wanted to know what I was doing. So I started playing, and I've been playing on and off for eight years now.

But also, I wanted to understand viscerally, for myself, what Miles went through: what learning to play the trumpet actually feels like, what creating an embouchure feels like, and having that facility under my fingers. I wanted to learn those solos and write that music out for myself, so that I had a stronger connection to him.

How did you fit that into your day? Apart from being the star, you wrote, produced, and directed this film, and you also have all these other projects. Were you getting up at 5 in the morning every day to practice?

Yeah, I would set aside time to practice. But also, just wherever I went, I had my trumpet. Doing House Of Lies, we'd have a break and I'd go into the trailer and I'd play. Doing The Avengers, it was the same thing. I just made it a part of my life, you know? It's with me right now. I still play.

In a sense this is kind of a buddy film, where the buddy is Ewan McGregor's character. He's a Rolling Stone journalist named Dave Braden, who — well, he's fictional, right?

He's like an amalgam. It's something that is done pretty standardly done in movies like this, where you have a character who's a composite of several different people.

But the question I wanted to ask has to do with something I saw you say in an interview – with Rolling Stone, actually. You said you had to have a white character, a central white character, in order to get the film financed.

Well, I guess what I could have also said is, "Or we had to have a piece of international casting that would allow us to have that economic box checked off." I could have cast an Asian actor if we had centered the film in China or Japan, and I was getting money from Chinese or Japanese investors. I could have had a big French actor, had we been able to sell the movie to France.

That's how these movies get put together: There are several components that come into play for how you get your financing, especially when you're trying to do it independently, and casting is one of those components. No one specifically said to me, "Go hire a white actor or you can't make this movie," but we understood what we needed to do to get a green light. And once Ewan signed on, the things started to roll downhill for sure. We started to get momentum.

Are you saying that's because of the way this country operates? Or are you saying that it's because the world, culturally, for whatever reason, needs to see white people in leading roles in order to be okay with a movie?

A little more nuanced than that, and I don't think it's binary. I think that, purely from a sales component, it's a marketing tool. When you're a financier and you're about to open your pocketbook, most of the time you're looking for excuses to say no. It's a risk-averse business, and people trying to hedge in any way, shape or form that they can.

We also had to shoot in a city where there was a rebate, so that we could have money coming in. I had to crowdfund, I had to spend my own money, I had to call my friends. People's uncles and nephews and cousins threw in. All of these ancillary ways are the ways that you get there. Does it make it somehow right or wrong? I don't think we're dealing in right or wrong. We're dealing with the realities and the vicissitudes of this business.

This film is also coming to us right after the #OscarsSoWhite conversation around this year's Oscar nominees.

I think that people want to conflate those two things. The timing of it is something that makes people go, "Oh well that's the same thing" — it's not the same thing at all, although it interrelates, if we're going to talk about it purely from the standpoint of what we're dealing with with race in this country.

Anything you want to say about that controversy? So much has been said at this point — but you're big-time and you're important, and people are interested in what you have to say.

What I say is that the point when we're talking about somebody calling someone's name, and somebody getting up on stage to hand them a piece of metal — that's not really the most important part of this. It happens much earlier, I think, [and that's] where the discussion needs to take place: where decisions are being made about what kinds of material to greenlight, what kinds of stories to tell, who are the people that are deciding what those stories are, how are we developing young diverse talent — not just black people but latino, LGBT concerns, Asian actors. I mean, if you're a Native American actor, you really got a bone to pick. So it's about having the opportunity to even tell a story that, at some point, may or may not get snubbed at the Oscars.

It's [also] about who votes, because this is still about people's biases and people's tastes, and things that they respond and react to. There is no empirical good or bad; I think this is all opinions and it's incredibly subjective. [But] a lot of times, the voting body doesn't even see all of the movies, you know? There used to be a time when you had to go on the record and clearly demonstrate that you had seen the films that you were going to be voting on, and it's not like that now. You sit at home with 56 screeners, and you can fast-forward through them, go to the end, just look at clips, not look at all — and then you get to vote. So it's not like the process itself doesn't need some overhauling. Being able to receive an award is a smaller part of it, but for a lot of movies, it is lifeblood.

I remember sitting at the SAG awards with some of the executives from MGM. Sophie Okonedo and myself had gotten acting nominations for the movie, and the Oscars were about to be announced in a week or two. And this executive said, "Yeah, well, if we don't get any Oscar nominations, I'm not going to spend any more money on this movie." And I was like, "Huh? I'm sitting right next to you! I can hear you." And he's like, "We can't create any sort of buzz if there's not going to be an Oscar nomination." And that was the first time I understood the real value of that nomination, and to some degree, the win. There's a financial upside for the filmmakers and the movie, and there's always an opportunity to parlay if you get your name out there in that way. But it's a little more nuanced than I think the way that the media often needs to latch on to these things so there's a clickbait headline.

In many ways, this is still about dreams. I was talking to Carl Franklin who directed Devil in a Blue Dress, and he said, "Look, if I was making the decisions about what movies would be made, there would be a lot of other people complaining, because these are only the kinds of movies I'm going to make." He goes, "Don, in my dreams, in my fantasies, in my stories, I'm slaying all the dragons. I'm saving the damsel in distress. The dude who's doing that looks like me." If you look at someone like Shonda Rhimes, she's placed fantasies and her dreams and her aspirations in how these characters live and work; you look at her knight and a lot of it looks like her. I think that's what it's about. If there are different people putting forward the thing that looks like them, then maybe we have some semblance of a level playing field, where we all feel represented.

You've lived with this project for a long, long time. Now that it's done, how do you feel?


OK. I believe you!

Yeah, it was a lot. You feel very vulnerable when you do something like this. There's no one I could ever point to and say, "Yeah well I wanted to do this, but this person wouldn't let me." Or, "It's the director's fault." Or, "Man, I had an actor that I just couldn't figure out." Or, "I did the best I could, but this was the script I had to deal with." There's no place for me to hide: Like it or love it, that's me.

We closed the New York Film Festival and I was sitting across from my daughter, who's 19 years old now, and she could kind of see the nervousness and the anticipation, the anxiousness all over me. She said, "Dad, isn't this great?" I was like, "I don't know." And she said, "What do you mean? You're here! I remember sitting on your lap as a 10-year-old, you working on this script and doing notes and listening to the music. Driving with you in the car on the way to school, and we're listening to So What and Miles Smiles and Bitches Brew. You've just been living this for so long, and you're here. It's great! Just try to feel great, Dad." And I was like, "OK. I'm just going to try to feel great." So thank you to my daughter for getting my head right.

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