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Don Cheadle gets inside Miles Davis’ head

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Don Cheadle becomes Miles Davis in “Miles Ahead,” a movie he co-wrote, co-produced and directed. (Courtesy Brian Douglas/Sony Pictures Classics)

Don Cheadle really “got” Miles Davis in “Miles Ahead.”

While filming the movie, the actor’s portrayal of the late jazz icon was so spot-on, it caused his son Erin to leave the set. “He said, ‘This is too spooky, this is too weird,’” says Cheadle, who decided to stay in character for much of the modestly budgeted film’s 30-day shoot in Cincinnati.

Opening Friday, “Miles Ahead” also is Cheadle’s directorial debut, and he co-wrote the script (with Steven Baigelman) with full cooperation from Davis’ family.

“They’re over the moon, they’re very happy, they feel like he’s back,” says Cheadle, on the phone from Los Angeles, calling the movie “the culmination of a lot of effort and attempts” to get the trumpet genius’ story told on film.

Cheadle’s connection to the project began about a decade ago, when Davis posthumously was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, prompting a comment from his nephew Vince Wilburn Jr.: “He made a declaration that they were going to do a movie about his uncle’s life and I was going to star in it,” says Cheadle, whose work in “Devil in a Blue Dress” caught Wilburn’s eye. (They didn’t know each other at the time, says Cheadle, who never met Miles.)

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Early on, the decision was made not to do a standard birth-to-death biography (“I don’t think Miles would want that”) says Cheadle, but to take an experimental, creative approach, “like we were walking around inside a Miles Davis composition.”

The movie begins in the 1970s, as an eager reporter (Ewan McGregor) attempts to get a story about the reclusive, drug-addicted artist who has dropped out of public life and “owes” his record company new material; it flashes back decades to his early days as an on-the-rise innovator; and to his intense and troubled relationship to his muse, dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi).

“Miles Ahead” is filled with music from all phases of the composer’s career, and Cheadle, who already played saxophone, learned trumpet for the project.

At the movie’s end, he performs with veterans Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and newcomers Gary Clark and Esperanza Spaulding, in what he describes as a “meta Miles moment.”

Calling it a success simply that the jazz greats showed up, Cheadle reports that Hancock and Shorter, who played with Davis, said, “This all feels like him to me.”

Cheadle, who says he felt “every emotion possible” while making the movie, admits to having a “sense of accomplishment, and relief, that it’s done.”

Also seemingly pleased he’s about to be finished promoting the film, Cheadle says he won’t read reviews (both he and Miles have “soft, vulnerable” parts) and that he’s looking forward to two things: a nap, and “to never hear my voice again.”


Miles Ahead
Starring Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi
Written by Don Cheadle, Steven Baigelman
Directed by Don Cheadle
Rated R
Running time 1 hour, 40 minutes

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