Just as superheroes have their canon origin stories, so does the movie "Miles Ahead." The tale of how Don Cheadle came to play jazz icon Miles Davis has already passed into the stuff of legend.
"You're not gonna make me say it again, right?" Cheadle asked with a laugh during a recent interview at his home in Los Angeles.
It was shortly before he had to leave to tape a pair of television appearances and then head to multiple post-screening Q&As for the kind of industry crowds that could help spread the word about the film, which opens Friday. When you star, direct, co-write and produce a daring and adventuresome movie like "Miles Ahead," the promotional duties fall hard on you. The film is also Cheadle's feature directing debut.
It all began 10 years ago. Just after Miles Davis was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, Davis' nephew Vince Wilburn Jr. said Don Cheadle would play the iconoclastic musician in a movie.
This was news to Don Cheadle.
Nevertheless, he eventually found himself meeting with Wilburn and other representatives of the Miles Davis estate. Cheadle had already appeared in a number of straightforward biopics — as disc jockey Petey Greene in "Talk to Me," entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. in "The Rat Pack" and humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina in "Hotel Rwanda," the role that earned him an Oscar nomination — so he wasn't interested in a conventional telling of Davis' life.
Instead of a straight-ahead narrative on how he worked with this person or that, overturned the conventions of jazz or his notoriously difficult personality in public and private, Cheadle pitched the family on an unusual idea that at its core would be a movie Davis himself might have wanted to star in.
"Even at that point I wasn't thinking, 'Oh, I'll write it and produce it and direct it,'" Cheadle, 51, said. "I was thinking this is a better way to approach that person's life. And as I was saying that out loud it became apparent it was going to be up to me to do that."
The story hurtles from one time period to another with a relentless sense of forward momentum. Based in the period in the late 1970s when Davis did not release any new music, the jazz legend seems haunted by memories of his ex-wife, the dancer Frances Taylor (played by Emayatzy Corinealdi).
A reporter named Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) barges his way into Davis' house, wanting to write the story of his lost years. An unreleased tape of a recording session goes missing and as Davis and Braden try to get it back, they repeatedly cross paths with a sleazy music biz hustler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a promising young trumpeter (Lakeith Lee Stanfield).
With its mix of real incidents, fictionalized circumstances and an unpredictable, shifting tone that at times feels like a romantic reverie and then like a gangster chase movie, "Miles Ahead" is rife with Davis' own restless energy.
"We wanted to lean into the idea that we were going to do something different, we were going to do an anti-biopic," said Cheadle's co-writer, Steven Baigelman, also credited on the James Brown picture "Get On Up." "We felt like the kind of person and the kind of artist that Miles Davis was, it was not possible, nor did we even want to try, to tell a whole life's story in an hour and a half or two hours. We felt it would have been an injustice to both the music and the man."
"To me it's saying, this is the best part of the Miles Davis that I know," said Cheadle, "this creative energy, the quest to never stop trying to figure out the next thing to say. For me as a first-time director, it was all kind of meta to me. I'm a first-time director in a place that's brand new and scary for me, and I am trying to figure out how to say the thing I want to say."
Cheadle intensely studied the trumpet for the part and indeed plays on-screen — though the sounds heard are largely either vintage recordings of Davis or contemporary trumpeter Keyon Harrold, who recorded to match Cheadle onscreen. (The film's score is likewise a mix of Davis recordings and original music by Robert Glasper.) Cheadle's determination to really learn to play the trumpet underscored his commitment to the role.
"He just really inhabited that character," Corinealdi said. "I did often feel he was still Miles even when he was giving me some direction. And I did often wonder how he was able to navigate that for himself. I honestly don't know that I have the answer as to how he was able to balance it, but he did."
"Miles Ahead" first premiered at the New York Film Festival last fall, ahead of this year's Oscar nominations and the subsequent controversy over their lack of diversity. Both Cheadle and his film, an Oscar-nominated black actor turned filmmaker promoting a movie about an iconic black musician, have since been swept up in the media uproar around the issues of Hollywood, inclusivity and representation.
"Everyone's conflating events that feel, and maybe in a good way, that feel like they begin to stack up on each other," he said. "It feels like we're having this watershed moment where the conversation and this idea is not something that in two months time recedes back and we don't even talk about it again.
"No, we're in sort of a movement right now, things moving in a direction where an issue like this or a question like this is something to be wrestled with, as uncomfortable as it may be or as inconvenient as it may be for people who just want it to be about entertainment," he continued. "And for that I'm like, OK fine, have it out there, let's talk about it."
"House of Lies," the Showtime series Cheadle stars in and executive produces, comes back on the air for its fifth season later this month, and he will also soon be seen reprising the character War Machine as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the upcoming "Captain America: Civil War." He's said he's waiting for the dust to settle from "Miles Ahead" before he decides whether he might go right into another project as director.
The entire time Cheadle has been talking, his phone has been plugged in to a sound system and playing only Davis' music — "I still listen to Miles all the time," he said.
Suddenly a quiet, traditional jazz tune shuffled to the jittery, heavy sound of Davis' music from the early '70s.
"See, this is Miles," Cheadle said, perking up with the shift in mood between songs. "This is Miles Davis music? Yeah."