Miles Ahead,” in which the versatile actor Don Cheadle portrays the legendary trumpeter, marks the directorial debut of Cheadle, who co-wrote the script. The independently financed production, made for $8.5 million, wrapped a monthlong shoot in Cincinnati in mid-August, capping a lengthy gestation period for a project that began eight years ago with Davis’ posthumous induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
The picture, which has yet to score a U.S. distributor, is among a number of film endeavors centering on iconic black musicians — all of them divisive figures who were considered ahead of their time, with none of the films so far connecting with a wide audience. Most recently, “Jimi: All Is by My Side,” starring Andre Benjamin (aka Outkast’s Andre 3000) as Jimi Hendrix, bowed quietly Sept. 26, and has grossed less than $300,000 to date. “Get On Up,” the $30 million James Brown biopic, received a similarly chilly reception, despite major studio support (Universal), grossing little more than its budget since its Aug. 1 debut. Alex Gibney’s low-earning documentary “Finding Fela!” about Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, opened in limited release in early August.
Davis’ career spanned some 50 years, and the highlights are many, from his pioneering “Birth of the Cool” sessions starting in 1949, to his first quintet with John Coltrane in the ’50s, his orchestral collaborations with Gil Evans later in the decade, the second great quintet with Herbie Hancock in the ’60s, and his electro-funk Prince of Darkness phase.
Cheadle’s take on Davis, co-written with Steven Baigelman, leans toward the more conceptual, juxtaposing two periods in the trumpeter’s life. “The central story takes place in two days, before he made his comeback (in 1980),” Cheadle says. The “B story,” as he calls it, reflects back to 1956-66, which parallels Davis’ relationship with his first wife, dancer Frances Taylor Davis. “She’s sort of the one that got away,” Cheadle explains, “the love of his life.” Saldana was originally identified to play Frances, but the role ultimately went to Emayatzy Corinealdi (Sundance hit “The Middle of Nowhere”).
Sets and locations in Cincinnati double for Davis’ New York Brownstone, the office of Columbia Records executive George Butler, and for performance spaces in the flashback sequences that could make up as much as 40% of the film.