MILES AHEAD, inspired by events in his life, is a wildly entertaining, impressionistic, no-holds barred portrait of one of 20th century music's creative geniuses, Miles Davis, featuring a career defining performance by Oscar nominee Don Cheadle in the title role. Working from a script he co-wrote with Steven Baigelman, Cheadle makes his bravura directorial debut.
In the midst of a dazzling and prolific career at the forefront of modern jazz innovation, Miles Davis (Cheadle) virtually disappears from public view for a period of five years in the late 1970s. Alone and holed up in his home, he is beset by chronic pain from a deteriorating hip, his musical voice stifled and numbed by drugs and pain medications, his mind haunted by unsettling ghosts from the past.
A wily music reporter, Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) forces his way into Davis' house and, over the next couple of days, the two men unwittingly embark on a wild and sometimes harrowing adventure to recover a stolen tape of the musician's latest compositions. Davis' mercurial behavior is fueled by memories of his failed marriage to the talented and beautiful dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). During their romance and subsequent marriage, Frances served as Davis' muse. It was during this period that he released several of his signature recordings including the groundbreaking "Sketches of Spain" and "Someday My Prince Will Come."
The idyll however, was short lived. The eight-year marriage was marked by infidelity and abuse, and Frances was forced to flee for her own safety as Miles' mental and physical health deteriorated.
By the late '70s, plagued by years of regret and loss, Davis flirts with annihilation until he once again finds salvation in his art.
THE MAKING OF MILES AHEAD
"To make an entertaining, "rock and roll" movie about a multi-talented musician in a non-traditional, subversive way. To attempt to DO Miles Davis rather than simply chronicle the highlights and low-lights of his life. That process felt like Miles to me."
After several setbacks, including one of the largest recessions in global history, Don Cheadle's MILES AHEAD finally locked down partial financing before turning to IndieGoGo to raise the funds to make up for the shortfall. "It actually felt right that we used a social platform to complete the film," observes Cheadle, "since Miles was someone who made 'social music.'"
The stop and start financing, however, was not the only hurdle for the low-budget project. Many of Cheadle's co-stars in the film, including Ewan McGregor, Michael Stuhlbarg and Emayatzy Corinealdi, had limited windows of availability before they had to depart for other commitments. "We only had Ewan and Michael for three weeks and Emayatzy for three weeks, so we had to complete all their sequences in the film during that period," says Cheadle. "We had to get it right the first time. No second bites of the apple."
Though set mostly in New York, MILES AHEAD was filmed mostly in Cincinatti, Ohio and Cheadle commends the city filmmaking commission for "pulling out all the stops. Only three features have ever been shot there and we were very lucky because they had recently wrapped Todd Haynes' film Carol and they were in a good place. Still, there were days when we had two cameras and only one operator available, because the other was working on another project. We also didn't have use of the Steadicam for the first week. But fortunately everyone was totally committed."
Producer Pamela Hirsch also has kind words for Cincinatti's film commission, particularly its cooperation during one of the film's set pieces, a frantic car chase. "We knew it was going to be challenging," says Hirsch, "but when you want to take over the streets, it helps to have a city that is happy to have you there. It just makes it easier."
Given the complexity of the sequence, it had to be completely planned out on storyboards, she says. "It was all there on the page and we knew the stakes, the pace and the action and, like much of the film, we wanted to push the envelope," says Hirsch. "And to do that, first we had to carefully map it out."
In addition to being a first-time director, Cheadle is also in every scene in the film, so his preparation had to be meticulous and he needed a top flight crew, which in addition to Hirsch and her producing partner Lenore Zerman included director of photography Roberto Schaefer (QUANTUM OF SOLACE, FINDING NEVERLAND), production designer Hannah Beachler (FRUITVALE STATION), costume designer Gersha Phillips (HOUSE OF CARDS, LIFE), editor John Axelrad (THE IMMIGRANT, CRAZY HEART), sound designer/sound editor Skip Lievsay (several Coen brothers movies including NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN), and composer Robert Glasper.
"Don knew it was going to be complicated, so he arrived well prepared and hired the right team and had a lot of trust in them," says Hirsch. "It was a passion project across the board and Don was one-hundred-percent open to ideas. It was a completely creative environment from top to bottom."
Cheadle and Baigelman's script was visually oriented and keyed to certain music cues, which made for a unique read, according to Hirsch. "The script was like a piece of music. I would get calls from crew members telling me that when they read it in conjunction with the piece of music that would be used, it changed the whole experience. It enabled them to visualize the pacing of the script because everything flowed like a piece of music."
The sound of the film is rich and layered and seamless, says Hirsch. "Anytime you have Miles Davis scoring a movie, you're in the hands of a master." In addition to Davis' compositions, the underscoring includes original music by Glasper and sound design by Lievsay that flow effortlessly around and through each other.
As an entertainment, Hirsch concludes, MILES AHEAD is engaging and enjoyable purely as filmmaking, a treat both for aficionados of Miles Davis's life and music as well as audiences who know very little about him. "Don has created a film that is truthful to Miles' spirit, a film he would have starred in. He was a complex character who lived a fascinating life, and it's all in there."
Thank you to the following Gogo Nation contributors:
Scott Mallory, Jr.
Winston H. Jordan Jr.
Anthony D. Paul
Damion A. Junk
Sir Donald M. Keegan
Shaun W. Thomas
Dianne K. Webb
Dwight E. Moore
James Earl Hardy
Claudette A. Moody
Yvette Lee Kang
Susan de Jong
Phillip & Toni Reeder
Matthew E Beasley
Starr M. Rayford