The Miles Davis Movie: Acting! or: Who is Miles Davis?

While researching the forthcoming Miles Davis biopic last night I found a short, news item on contactmusic.com from June of last year.

It begins:

Don Cheadle received no help from Miles Davis’ family while researching his role as the jazz man – because no one had any recollections about the music icon’s secret life.

It’s a year later, and I have no idea what’s going on internally with the project, but I do know that Vince Wilburn Jr., Davis’ nephew and part of Miles Davis Properties, is on board as a producer, so there must be ‘help’ on some level.

It’s an interesting angle when you think about what source material the writers and Cheadle are drawing from in crafting the film. There are numerous biographies and the infamous autobiography, plus countless interviews and features, but I’m sure access to family and friends is essential to the overall goal in piecing together Davis’ life.

The Hotel Rwanda star felt sure recollections from Davis’ family members would help him master the essence of the legend but Cheadle discovered he knew more about his subject than they did. He says, “I asked them about parts of his life and they don’t have any idea. They don’t know what was going on. “Miles Davis lived in a house on the Upper West Side in New York – in this converted church – for five years and they said, `There were days when we’d come to see him and he wouldn’t let us in.’

“I ended up with the soup of the person and who that person was spiritually… What his wife said, what his ex-wife said, what his girlfriend says, the nephew says, the son says, there are all these different perspectives on this one person.”

Okay, so based on this story it appears Cheadle wasn’t able to discover a similar theme from one persons’ recollections to the next, rather a continuum of jumbled memories.

It’s a difficult road in trying to understand the essence of Miles Davis? That sounds about right…

The report closes with this:

And when Cheadle turned to Davis interviews to help his research he didn’t find a lot of help there either. He adds, “He’d tell a long story and the guy said, `That’s amazing. Did that really happen?’ and he’d say, `I don’t f**kin’ know.'”

There’s no byline attached to the story, and I don’t know the specifics of where Cheadle made these remarks, but it’s interesting nevertheless.

But that was a year ago. Where are we now?

I haven’t seen trouble brewing for the production in the press, so one would believe we’re still full steam ahead. I can only assume Cheadle has spent sunnier days researching Davis.

Although I have no doubt it has been an arduous task.

I would love to know how Cheadle has been/is preparing for the role; I can only imagine reading everything he could find, studying video and working hard to connect with those who knew him best.

Let’s face it: Miles Davis is just the kind of character any actor would kill to dive into; a role filled with conflict and talent, passion and pain, warmth and toughness…. He has it all!

I’m not here to say the ‘role’ of Miles Davis is going to jump up the Great List next to the likes of Hamlet, or any number of Mamet characters, but I believe portraying the iconic jazz trumpeter is an assignment that demands the very best an actor has to give – and in doing so will add a new chapter to the book of classic film performances.

This might work better if we were discussing a Miles Davis play in the works, but the sentiment remains that playing Miles Davis might become one of those performances that not only movie fans and Davis fans rave about, but also one that’s studied in drama classes for years to come.

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3 thoughts on “The Miles Davis Movie: Acting! or: Who is Miles Davis?”

  1. It would seem for these things to work, you absolutely have to have some kind of access/cooperation from those closest to him or from the figure itself. Part of the reason Jaime Foxx WAS Ray Charles was because he hung around the man himself. The clip of Ray teaching Foxx the intro to “Mess Around” is an absolute gem in the DVD extras.

    And with “Walk the Line,” Johnny Cash’s son was executive producer, I believe. No matter how biased that movie may have been (and as a former college professor of mine used to always say, there is always going to be bias in any form of biography because it’s always coming from one perspective), you at least felt some personal connection to John R. Cash.

    It’s a shame Cheadle felt like it was tough to get a sense of Miles from talking to family. Unfortunately, that’s an indictment of what kind of relationship he had with family, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

    Despite that, I’m sure Cheadle will do his homework because he’ll want his directorial debut to be a smash. And who knows, maybe the reason Miles is such an elusive figure to pin down is because, well, maybe he just was.

    I would imagine the same will happen whenever someone dares to do a proper biopic on Bob Dylan, another artistic chameleon (and like Miles, a Gemini; I’ll let the horoscope folks mull that one over) who simply can’t be pinned down easily.

  2. Hi Ed:

    You’re so right that access and cooperation are essential; “Ray” and “Walk the Line” are good examples of when it works. Having Ray Charles available to Jamie Foxx was indispensable to the finished product. Sure, Foxx probably would have done well if Charles was not around, but nothing can compare to actually spending quality time with the man you are playing in a movie.

    I can imagine when they get around to the James Brown biopic there’s going to be all kinds of misinformation and genuine facts to sort through when diving into his amazing life.

    But I do think Cheadle is going to have the man sized-up nicely for the film and will be able to provide the requisite ‘layers’ that make up Miles Davis. And that’s a lot of layers….

  3. A James Brown biopic? That could get REALLY messy. Is there serious talk about that one?

    I’d certainly pay to see that. Good GAWD!

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