“From 1975 until early 1980,” Miles Davis writes in his 1989 autobiography, Miles, “I didn’t pick up my horn.” Don Cheadle has taken up that period as the subject for Miles Ahead, a film he directs and acts in as the trumpet legend. A 30-day shoot in Cincinnati, Ohio ended last month, and it could be some time before the film premieres, but an article in Sunday’s The New York Times suggests it takes an unconventional approach inspired by Davis’s own career.
Like new Jimi Hendrix movie Jimi: All Is By My Side (read our interview with producer Danny Bramson), Miles Ahead focuses on a specific period in an artist’s life, rather than zooming out for a Ray-like cradle-to-grave biopic. Unlike Jimi, Cheadle’s film has the approval of Davis’s estate. But in documenting a musically undocumented period in the musician’s life, Miles Ahead exercises some creative license. “There’s a lot of factual things in our script,” Cheadle told the Times, “but we wanted to do something that was more chock-full of truths than chock-full of facts.”
That reportedly includes the fictitious addition of car chases, for one. But the Times also memorably describes an entire argument with label executives that never happened. In the scene, Cheadle’s Davis and a Rolling Stone reporter played by Ewan McGregor storm into a Columbia boss’s office and claims the label is prematurely teasing a return from his break. “Y’all can’t wait to saddle me back up again,” Cheadle’s Davis is quoted as saying. “There is no Columbia without me.” When told the label has the legal right to make use of Davis’s music as it sees fit, the movie character draws a gun and takes fire at a lamp.
Davis embellished his life in his autobiography, too. For one thing, he did pick up his horn during his hiatus. Cheadle told the Times he had listened to some recordings of Davis made during these years. “There’s a hook, a snippet, and then there’s nothing,” he observed. “It’s baby steps. You can hear the engines just starting to turn.”
Miles Ahead met its goal of raising $325,000 through crowdfunding site Indiegogo ahead of the shoot. And Cheadle, saying Davis (who died in 1991) would be working with Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, or Skrillex today, pointed out to the Times that Davis was “a searcher, an innovator.” It remains to be seen how this musically undocumented part of Davis’s life will come alive on the screen. At the very least, Cheadle, who played saxophone in his teens and saw Davis perform live in 1981, has picked up his horn.