First off: No, Don Cheadle doesn’t have a favorite Miles Davis record.
“It depends on the mood,” the actor admits. “There’s so many in there. It’s like different foods. They each have a different palate that satisfies.”
Cheadle, now 51, did know which part of the jazz legend’s life he wanted to film, and it may be surprising, especially considering his film — the new “Miles Ahead,” which the Oscar-nominated actor stars in, co-wrote and directed — is the first big movie about Davis’ life. Cheadle picked the late ’70s, specifically a few days during the five years he had quit music completely, holing up in his New York apartment, growing out his hair and acting even more erratic than usual.
Normally artists — especially troubled geniuses like Davis — get sprawling, career-spanning movies. Cheadle knew he didn’t want that.
“He was relevant in music for 40 plus years. Each moment would have been given such short shrift,” Cheadle explains. Over the years Cheadle had been pitched movies about Davis’ life. “They felt like versions of Cliffs Notes of his life.”
Besides Davis probably would have hated a standard, sleepy biopic. “I think he actually went on record about some movie he had seen done that way. He said, ‘Eh, I hate that s—. Don’t do that with me.’”
And so “Miles Ahead” is a movie, like Mike Leigh’s Gilbert and Sullivan film “Topsy-Turvy” or Maurice Pialat’s “Van Gogh,” that focuses on a slither of an artist’s life. But it’s also a wild, often free-form movie that’s more speculative fiction than a Wikipedia movie. Cheadle’s Davis winds up joining forces with a dodgy Rolling Stone journalist (Ewan McGregor) to steal back some tapes, featuring his first recorded music in years, back from a shady record label. Along the way Davis periodically flashes back to the 1950s and ’60s before snapping back to the present.
“I wanted it to feel like we’re walking through a Miles Davis experience, rather than be something that was informational,” Cheadle admits. He recalls visiting a Davis museum exhibit a few years back. “For the five year period [of non-work], you walked into this dark space where the walls come in and it’s very strange and tactile. You feel like you’re inside Miles’ brain. I wanted that feeling for the movie.”