Don Cheadle and Steven Baigelman jettison traditional biopic conventions to capture the gangster truth of enigmatic jazz genius Miles Davis in Miles Ahead.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
(April 8, 2016)
On camera, Don Cheadle is the birth of cool playing jazz icon Miles Davis in his directorial and writing debut Miles Ahead [Screenplay by Steven Baigelman & Don Cheadle; Story by Steven Baigelman & Don Cheadle and Christopher Wilkinson & Stephen J. Rivele]. His performance embodies the smooth, raspy genius with an ever-lurking primal menace – he’s electric sitting perfectly still. But as a writer, the cerebral Cheadle got his nerd on, spending the better part of a decade with his co-writer Steven Baigelman in his guest house they came to call “The Lab,” delving into every esoteric detail of Davis’ life and work to such an extent you could imagine the trumpet legend shaking his head behind a plume of smoke and dark sunglasses at their overfoolish attempt to know the unknowable.
Like Davis says at the top of the movie to supposed Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), “If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude. Don’t be all corny with the shit.” Happily, the deeper Cheadle and Baigelman went, the more they understood this instinctively. A truth lost on many scripts that attempt to depict artistic greatness is that you can’t just grab hold of ineffable genius with words – you have to build structures and viscera and create rhythms that leave room for the magic to come through.
Honoring one of Davis’ famous real-life dictates to play what’s not there, the writing duo quickly fixed on a five-year period in the mid ‘70s when the icon mysteriously fell silent, and made that their narrative home base. From there they jump and flow in a free-form, anti-biopic approach that is as much gangster heist movie as it is reverent homage. Miles Ahead manages to capture the feel of Davis and his music without phony a-ha moments over mounds of crumpled paper and spent cigarettes. Cheadle says he wanted this to be a movie that Davis would not only have wanted to see, but would have wanted to star in.
Cheadle was drawn by Baigelman’s work on the James Brown movie Get On Up – how it turned the traditional biopic on its head. He didn’t want to do the cradle-to-grave life story and in Baigelman he found a “partner in crime.” The two spoke to the Writers Guild of America, West, Web site, about their attempt to mimic the simple, two-chord jazz that made up some of Davis’ most iconic compositions in their narrative and how, by embracing the wild, gangster ferocity that underpinned Davis’ impenetrable cool, they were able to get into the icon and make a movie Miles Davis would want to star in.
Photo: © 2016 Sony Pictures Classics
Don Cheadle in Miles Ahead.
Tell me about the decision to pick this story up about one of the most important and prolific American musical icons from a period in his life when he’s silent.
Don Cheadle: When we were delving into this research, everything was interesting to us about Miles Davis, you know? We both love music and love Miles and everything was interesting to us, but one of the most interesting things we bumped into was this five-year period when he wasn’t playing. One of the most prolific artists of the 20th century, one of the greatest voices who impacted his art form in such a demonstrative way for so many years – changed music three or four times – then just shut it all down? We were both like, “What the fuck is that? How does that work? What’s going on in that period? What’s he doing? Why did he shut it down? Is he going to come out? When he comes out, what’s it going to sound like?”
The enigma of that period is the magnetic attraction there?
Don Cheadle: Absolutely. Especially with this artist, who famously said, play what’s not there – and famously was about leaving space. Now we bump into his part of life that seems to be all about that – what’s not there and space and the voice being silent. We just marveled over that and went, “Well, this is our entry point – this is the point of departure for us.”
And you wanted to approach the writing with a free, improvisational feel to match the man at the center of the story.
Steven Baigelman: Yeah, exactly that. Once we decided what our entry point was, we essentially took our marching orders from Miles. We did a lot of research and looked at a lot of things that he said. And as Don pointed out, this idea of space and what’s not there – and we were also particularly interested in figuring out the process of an artist who suddenly decides he doesn’t have anything to say and how an artist in general and Miles Davis specifically, finds their way back to creating again, which is ultimately his life blood.
The story is loose and free-form, but what kind of struck me was how it’s also anchored by core, very traditional narrative elements. You’ve got this central heist/chase thing going on over the tape, you got this buddy relationship with Dave Brill, which I know is a complicated story on its own. And then you got the love story. Did you purposely want to juxtapose the free-form element with some kind of touchstone narrative anchors?
Don Cheadle: Well, without sounding too pretentious or getting too esoteric about it, which we relished doing when we were in the lab – we’d deep dive into it – we were fascinated with Miles’ approach to modality in his music, the construction of what is arguably – not from his standpoint, but from everyone else’s – the pinnacle of his achievement being So What and Kind of Blue. These songs that are built around simply two chords, so that things are not linear in their structure, but that they are sort of horizontal in construction. It’s just C and C# bebop, it’s up and down, and there are a lot of runs and key change, key change, key change… It’s this-and-that, it’s yes-and-no, it’s binary. And we said, let’s create a composition with this narrative that is also binary, that’s this-and-that.
What’s the this? The this is Miles in this period where he’s trying to find what to say, and is he going to come back, and what that looks like. And the that is the period with Frances Taylor Davis, who they both describe – Frances and Miles – as being the one that got away, the one who was closest to him in spirit as far as what he was looking for in a woman, the person who embodied a lot of his creativity, and the one he had the most regret about. So for us, she became the physical embodiment of these missing tapes. She was the physical embodiment of this stolen voice, this music that’s gone. It’s what he’s trying to get back to. A lot of the ways that we cut back and forth between these different times is based on emotionally what’s happening with Miles and that music. When he almost has it, boom, she’s gone.
Steven Baigelman: Right, and the idea of re-conjuring… During that period of time, he was particularly, creatively electric and alive and doing some of his most recognizable and great work, and the idea of remembering, recalling that person and whatever that period was…
Don Cheadle: It was his most fertile period in a way…
Steven Baigelman: In order for him to create it again.
This is not as cool as what you guys are talking about, but these conventional components, like the heist movie plot line, is cool but super conventional juxtaposed to more esoteric, free-form aspects of the narrative. I’m curious how intentional that counterbalance was?
Don Cheadle: Well, when you have eight years to grind on something… Steve and I said to ourselves as soon as we were finished with the movie, it’s like, “Well, we can’t say that wasn’t what we were trying to do.” We came back to this script incessantly. We never stopped working on this thing. And we really looked at films like Toto the Hero and Run Lola Run – All that Jazz, the way those films are constructed. Toto the Hero especially because there are about four storylines that are happening, there are flashbacks that happen, but it never feels like the movie stops to go back and pick something up and come back to the same moment that we left and then we go forward. For us one of the strongest a-ha moments was when we knew that Frances could be pirouetting towards Miles in the ‘50s and start to fall, and that Dave [Brill] in the ‘70s could complete her fall. We always wanted the thing to be tumbling forward.
When I met with the family, I said, “Look, we can do a film that’s built sort of like movies that we’ve seen before, that Miles has famously gone on record saying he didn’t like, or we can do something that feels like him and that’s kind of gangster and kind of wild and over-the-top in ways.” I said, “I want to make a movie that Miles Davis would want to star in, I want to make a heist movie, I want to make a gangster movie.” And they looked at me like, “Are you fucking crazy?” And they said, “Well, okay.” We had several come-to-Jesus moments when I had to re-pitch that, but ultimately they got on board with it. Steve and I, in constructing it, wanted to have the theme of what has been taken, and the theme of ownership, and the theme of what’s stolen from you. The theme of who gets to decide who you are, what you are, how you say what you say. It just felt like the heist aspect was something that would give us the ability to say all of those things.
Steven Baigelman: Right. The magical take that everybody wants.
There’s something about this heist thing and this visceral, pugilistic, gangster aspect of Davis that pierces the un-pierceable veil of musical genius. It removes pretense. You can’t make a movie about genius, it’s too ineffable – did you know you needed something...
Don Cheadle: How many times did we say that to each other, Steven? That exact sentence…?
Steven Baigelman: A hundred million times over eight years, for sure. Looking at other films, specifically studying how genius was portrayed in films and it’s oftentimes you know, a “genius” sitting at a piano writing some stuff and crunching up the paper throwing it over his shoulder... We were like, “We’ve seen this stuff before.” We really wanted to get deeply inside what the creative process is, especially with someone who’s trying to get back into creating again. As Don said, deciding when that will be and how that will be and what he will say. We felt that what was taken away and what would have to be violently taken back, was representative of the creative process.
We had talks about the consciousness of how we were going to do that [and] very early on we knew what we didn’t want to do, and landed pretty quickly on this idea of a heist and this tape. Which was true – there was this tape that existed, this secret session that everybody wanted to get their hands on. We also knew that we wanted to make a movie that was about reintroducing Miles Davis to a whole new audience. If we were going to do the cradle-to-the-grave thing, you can just watch a documentary about that. So what we wanted to do was create a fun and visceral film – something unexpected – that could draw a certain kind of audience in that maybe needed to be reintroduced to Miles’ music. Or a brand new group of people that maybe never heard of Miles Davis, that we could introduce them to and give birth to his music again.
There’s a theft at the center of this, and there’s the Jack Johnson component hanging out there. This movie is not directly about race per se, but it touches very much on a theft in American music involving black musicians being robbed.
Don Cheadle: Yes, we wanted to thread that all throughout the film. The idea that who you are and who gets to say who you are, and the idea of ownership was important to us. We wanted to keep ringing that bell and bringing that theme through. That scene in the Columbia office where the A&R guy basically tells him, “We own all of that – we own you.” Miles wants to shoot him in the head because of that, you know? And yes, that’s why Jack Johnson is there. That’s why that specific fight is on the screen. Jack Johnson had beat everybody, and it was decided that in this little demonstration fight, you guys just poke around and give the people an exhibition. The [other] fighter decided, no, I’m going to take a shot and really try and take Jack Johnson out because [he’s] my boy, and Jack Johnson broke his teeth. Miles being accosted on the sidewalk by the police officer, because, “Yeah, you might be Miles Davis inside that club, but out here on this sidewalk, you’re just a nigger smoking a cigarette, move it.” So we wanted to keep bringing those themes back and have Miles in the present and the past fighting for his own ownership.
One of the lesser mentioned aspects to his genius seems to be how he always knew this shit is valuable – this is me, this is my identity, I get paid – at a time when other artists weren’t as aware of that – even the young black trumpet player [in the film] is much more at sea with that concept.
Don Cheadle: Yes. He’s owned – he belongs to someone.
Steven Baigelman: But he’s also stuck in the middle. He wants to [be like] Miles, but hasn’t found his road to do that. So in some ways, he represents that moment in Miles’ life when he was young, at a time when he took ownership over his music and his life.
Don Cheadle: That’s why we named him Junior, which was Miles’ nickname when he was younger, and why we gave him a wife named Irene, and a daughter named Cheryl, which was Miles’ first, which is why he’s the one who unlocked the mysteries of that music. Steven and I were saying, who is the personality within you that gets you back on the horse when you’ve lost your way? It’s going to be that kid, it’s going to be that first curious voice that said, “I want to go and break out of my bonds, I’m going to figure it out.” So Junior is essentially the Miles that’s walking next to Miles.
Steven Baigelman: And each of them reminding the other about who they are. So all of these choices were deeply conscious and decided upon. As Don said, we kept coming back over and over in order to hone it, we kept revisiting it to make sure we’re on the right track.
Don Cheadle: In jazz music, themes are often repeated and brought back in many different ways. We wanted to make sure these themes happened [in the film]. We have almost every character saying so what – that was purposeful. We wanted all of these aspects to be Miles. We wanted to create a narrative of the external manifestation of this internal process.
Well said. That’s really at the heart of everything here, trying to articulate something that you can’t articulate.
Steven Baigelman: That goes back to your question about genius. That is the answer as to how we decided we were going to exhibit the process of how a genius creates and then re-creates.
How did you guys do the actual writing here? Did you spend a lot of time together brainstorming? Did you pass things back and forth? It sounds like you nerded out a little bit together.
Steven Baigelman: A lot. We went to “The Lab” – we called it “The Lab.” When we weren’t doing something else, we were in there. We kept revisiting and revisiting and honing and double checking and…
Don Cheadle: And we wrote two more things during this period too, by the way. We sold another script during this period. A lot of writing, a lot of grinding.