Cheadle takes right path to ‘Miles Ahead’

On Tuesday night, I dropped the needle on the first Miles Davis record I bought, cranked the volume, paged through my copy of “Miles: The Autobiography” and logged onto www.indiegogo.com to pay $25 to the campaign to help fund “Miles Ahead,” the Don Cheadle-directed film about the legendary jazz musician’s life.

My small sum brought the campaign to fund the independent film — meaning there’s no studio backing — to $276,359, a little closer to the $325,0000 goal. In return for my support, I’ll receive some updates from the set (probably blogs or videos), a DVD of the movie once it’s released, and the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes with knowing I helped fund a motion picture, albeit in a minuscule way.

In retrospect, it may have been a foolish decision, especially given Cheadle made more on one movie than I’ll likely make in my life — a reported $1 million paycheck for “Ironman 2.” (Cheadle has reportedly spent his own money to help finance the project.)

But I felt the nagging need to support project for a few reasons. First off, Cheadle’s vision is bold.

He is both directing and starring as Miles Davis. Filming began recently and last week the first pictures from set showed Cheadle immersed as a 1970s Davis.

Rather than focusing on the golden years from Davis’s storied career — his time with Charlie Parker, the “Kind of Blue” sessions, or his work leading some of the greatest bands in history — Cheadle’s film centers on 1979 when Davis was nearing the end of a dark, five-year hiatus music with flashbacks from his earlier days mixed in.

The story follows Davis and Dave Brill, a Rolling Stone reporter played by Ewan McGregor, going to retrieve an album that’s been stolen from Davis’s house. Cheadle has described the story as more impressionistic rather than a true biopic.

Many surely will begrudge Cheadle for not focusing on Davis in the 1950s or 1960s or a cradle-to-the-grave biopic, but Cheadle is selecting perhaps the darkest days of a storied 50-year career.

Could it backfire? Absolutely, but it’s still a wise decision to narrow the focus rather than get lost in the impossibility of narrowing a vast career into cliff notes. It’s the best chance for success outside a TV miniseries on Davis.

Secondly, this is an important story of talent that doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending.

Anyone who has read the “Miles: The Autobiography” knows two things about Miles Davis: He had an enormous ego and he had several personal demons — drugs, sex, alcohol, he was an absent father, etc., etc. However, Davis’s honesty in the book is unmatched. He tells his story without glamorizing his downfalls, he admits his mistakes, and he and never sugarcoats his story.

Cheadle’s vision falls right in line with that. Today, celebrities often pay people to keep such details out of the press. Davis embraced his past — the good and the bad.

To be frank, the five-year period away from music that Davis describes in the book — and that will likely be vital in the film — was haunting, showing one of the most talented musicians of the 20th Century lost in the depths of addiction.

Compare that with Johnny Cash’s story of addiction in “Walk the Line.” Cash’s story ended with his eventual marriage to June Carter Cash and many years of marriage. Davis’s story didn’t end with romance; in fact, he writes in the book about regretting the way he treated his first wife, Frances Taylor.

Davis returned to music, but he didn’t repeat his prior success. It’s hardly the perfect Hollywood happy ending, but that doesn’t mean its any less worthwhile of a story to tell. It’s a raw, more humanizing story that needs to be told.

Lastly, I hope the film will bring Davis’s music to a new generation much like “Walk the Line” did for Johnny Cash’s music. I’ll admit I largely overlooked Cash’s music until seeing the film. Herbie Hancock, who played with Davis as part of his “Second Great Quintet,” is overseeing the music, so it’s sure to introduce it to many new fans.

Skeptics will need to realize Cheadle isn’t trying to tell the whole story; it’s just one part. For the full story, check out “Miles: The Autobiography.” No film or miniseries will ever come close to the book.

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