NYFF: Don Cheadle Defends Creative Liberties in Story and Music of Miles Davis Biopic

Courtesy of NYFF
'Miles Ahead'

"What we all know in these real stories is that to some degree, they are all historical fiction, everyone is taking poetic license because clearly you can't encapsulate a person’s life in 90 minutes."

Some might be shocked that Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic opens with the 1975 track “Agharta,” rather than something from the musician’s early career. Yet the director and star told reporters ahead of the New York Film Festival's closing-night title that he wanted the film to be more experiential for the listener rather than accurate for the historian.

“I wanted to be able to put all of Miles’ music into the film,” explained Cheadle, who is making his directorial debut with Miles Ahead. “I didn't want to be stuck with one period of his music. I think had we told it in a way that was chronological, was cradle to grave, was standard telling, we would’ve been pigeonholed into these moments that coincided with the music, and they would’ve all been given short shrift.”

“I see stories in my head when I listen to his music, and I wanted the music to support those stories. I didn’t want to be, ‘We’re in the ‘60s, so now we have to use the music that he did with the supergroup,’ or ‘We’re now coming into the ‘70s, so we have to use Bitches Brew,’” he continued, later adding that jazz musician Robert Glasper helped to re-create some Davis musical moments to fit the filmic cues Cheadle needed. “Why can't we use Bitches Brew in 1958 if it makes sense? Why can’t we use Kind of Blue in 1969 or 1970 if that’s what we feel like the movie wants to be?”

The nonchronological storytelling uses a framing device in which Davis looks back while being interviewed by a journalist, whom Cheadle explained was a composite character of the many reporters who were trying to speak with him toward the end of his life, either because they thought it’d be his final interview or his first comeback chat. Having already completed real-life portrayals in 2004’s Hotel Rwanda and the 1996 TV movie Rebound: The Legend of Earl 'The Goat' Manigault, he felt the structure honored Davis’ perspective.

“What we all know in these real stories is that to some degree, they are all historical fiction, everyone is taking poetic license because clearly you can't encapsulate a person’s life in 90 minutes, two hours, whatever it is,” Cheadle explained, as characters are removed and scenes are omitted, inevitably. “I didn’t want to attempt to be playing cute with the story in saying, ‘This is a true story.’ I wanted the storyteller in the movie, being Miles Davis, to say, ‘If I’m gonna tell a story, I’m gonna tell a story, and I want it to be creative and interesting and different.’”

Cheadle continued that such a structure “would also demonstrate the breadth and scope of his music,” as the musician often hated to box himself into the label of “jazz,” though his sound bled into multiple genres. “That's what the movie is trying to represent: a multifaceted artist, not simply a jazz musician.”

Further, a closing sequence features Cheadle as Davis playing alongside Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter of today, playing a new tune and wearing a hashtag.

“For me, the music is not dead; for me, Miles is extensively not dead. And for those who don't know, who have not been formally introduced to his music, it’s the underpinning of a lot of popular music today,” said Cheadle, adding that, if alive today, Davis would be collaborating with Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo. “It's intended to say Miles is present, Miles lives and Miles is now, and the story of Miles Davis continues.”

Altogether, the creative licenses taken is, in a sense, “that we continue to create on top of his creations,” he concluded, and “in the spirit of what I believe Miles was always about, which is keep it moving, keep it forward, keep it going."