'Miles Ahead' Fitting Tribute To Jazz Icon

Apr 14, 2016

Don Cheadle stars as Miles Davis in "Miles Ahead."
Credit Brian Douglas / Sony Pictures Classics

This I know for sure: I love jazz, and I loved "Miles Ahead."

I don't know if jazz icon Miles Davis really robbed a CBS executive at gunpoint, as depicted in Don Cheadle's movie opening Friday April 15 at the Esquire Theatre in Clifton.

I don't know if Davis (portrayed by Cheadle) and a "Rolling Stone" writer (Ewan McGregor) fired gunshots in a car chase trying to recover a recording tape stolen from Davis's New York City home in 1979.

I do know Davis wanted to keep the recording private. Cheadle, who co-wrote the screenplay, told me that before he started filming here in summer 2014.

The script was once called "Kill The Trumpet Player." I don't know how historically accurate the screenplay is about Davis, a major figure in the bebop, cool jazz and jazz fusion movements who died in 1991 at age 65.

Miles Davis (Cheadle) robs a CBS executive at CBS headquarters.
Credit Brian Douglas / Sony Pictures Classics

I know that Davis's two children, his nephew and former wife Frances Taylor are listed as producers in the credits. "His two kids and his nephew signed off on the script," Cheadle said at the Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky Film Commission premiere party March 26.

Cheadle told me that "Miles Ahead" was set in New York in 1979 as Davis—one of the most prolific musicians of the 20th century -- was coming out of a five-year, cocaine-fueled "silent period" away from the public eye. He said there would be flashbacks to Miles' marriage (1956-66) to dancer Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi).

Dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) auditions in a scene filmed at Music Hall.
Credit Brian Douglas / Sony Pictures Classics

Local musicians in the film, Joshua Jessen (as pianist Bill Evans) and J.T. Thigpen (bassist Paul Chambers) told me there were numerous flashbacks to the 1950s, which included Miles' recordings of "So What," "Blue in Green," Gone" and other tunes.

I thought that would be confusing. I didn't know how that would work. But it does.

One look at Cheadle, and you know if he's Davis in the '50s or decades later. Short hair, suit and tie –that's the '50s look.  Bushy Afro, bell bottoms and  bright colored clothes signal the '70s. Simple yet brilliant.

Credit Brian Douglas / Sony Pictures Classics

Like good jazz, the "Miles Ahead" story riffs back and forth, exploring new variations, and often returns to main theme: That Frances Taylor was Miles' muse, his inspiration. It's an impressive directorial debut by the Oscar-nominated actor.

I know Cheadle grew up playing alto sax. He told me he loved listening to his parents' Charlie Parker record, not their Miles Davis album. I also knew from our conversation in his Carew Tower production office that he saw Davis's "We Want Miles" concert at Red Rocks in 1981 – two years after the "silent period" – when Cheadle was 16. "I never forgot the performance… It was incredible."

He told me in 2014 that he'd been taking trumpet lessons for three years. I didn't know how convincing he could be as one of the greatest trumpet players ever. But he is.

"He plays quite well, I must say. He doesn’t mess around. And he’s obviously studied Miles’ sound, which is impressive too. Not only did he study the trumpet, but he’s making a lot of those sounds too," Jessen told me on WVXU's "Around Cincinnati" last month.

"Miles Ahead" was filmed in Music Hall, Northside Tavern, Taft Theatre, the Mount Adams Monastery (boxing scene), an Oakley church-turned-home, downtown and Over-the Rhine, thanks to another terrific scouting effort by Kristen Erwin Schlotman, film commission executive director.  She also drove to Dayton to find an old jail and the 30-year old Refraze Recording Studios needed for scenes.

I was pretty sure Cincinnati would double perfectly for New York City, as it has for "Carol," "Lost in Yonkers," "The Public Eye" and other films. Unlike "Carol," there are a couple scenes that missed matching Manhattan.

Miles Davis outside the Village Vanguard club, shot on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine.
Credit Brian Douglas / Sony Pictures Classics

The Cincinnati Bell building at 209 W. Seventh St. didn't look like the New York skyscraper home for CBS headquarters. This wasn't even a chip off what they call "Black Rock" in Midtown.

Northside Tavern's interior worked for the world famous Village Vanguard jazz club – but not the exterior scenes shot on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. I don't know who will think that a desolate Over-the-Rhine street was bustling Greenwich Village.

And I'm aware that I've said for two years that "Miles Ahead" was shot entirely in Cincinnati. That's not true. The film ends with Cheadle playing trumpet as Miles with jazz greats Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and other Davis collaborators somewhere on the East Coast.

As I said, I love jazz.  But mostly I love piano jazz, especially Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington, who I was fortunate to meet years ago. I didn't listen to much of Miles. I thought his music, particularly his 1980s fusion sound, was kind of far out.

The movie turned me on to Miles' 1950s classics. I don't know for sure, but "Miles Ahead" could spark a revival in this jazz genius. Robert Glasper's soundtrack is a terrific mix of Davis classics and jazz that captures the essence and spirit of Davis. Actually, the entire movie captures Miles' essence and spirit.

I still don't know about the hold-up, car chases and gunshots Cheadle added to attract an audience.  But to quote a Miles Davis song title, "So What."

Credit Brian Douglas / Sony Pictures Classics